I spent this morning in the Greenwood District of Tulsa with Rev. Robert Turner of Vernon A.M.E., and other community leaders including City Council member Hall-Harper, Chief Amusen, Kristi Williams and Greg Robinson.
They shared a powerful story that included freed men and women building a life for themselves and defining a future for their children in the Oklahoma Territory in the 19th-century. The cities and towns they founded and grew. The wealth that they created through their innovation and hard work. The success they were able to achieve despite everything that post-Reconstruction America could throw at them.
Back in 1921, Greenwood, known as “Black Wall Street,” was one of the wealthiest African American communities in the country. But its strength and prosperity invited the resentment and fear of the surrounding white communities. Greenwood’s achievements and exceptionalism were no defense against a racist country that had no reservations about using violence and the law to keep communities of color down.
On May 30th of that year, a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. Rumors spread, inflamed by newspapers who sought to profit from fear, the white community whipping itself into a frenzy of hatred, followed by violence. With the consent of members of law enforcement, white citizens shot and killed black citizens, burned them in their homes and businesses, bombed and destroyed the entire community where it stood. Up to 300 people were killed and thousands more were made homeless.
We don’t know the exact number of deaths because as soon as this act of terror concluded, the survivors where terrorized further, forced to keep quiet about what had happened. Black residents had to carry a green card if they wanted to work and stay in the town. They were policed and brutalized by the Klan and the very law and order of their own city and country — lest they rise up and demand an accounting, demand justice. Evidence was destroyed, memories were suppressed, the past was covered up.
No insurance claims were ever paid for the destruction. The act of white supremacist terror was conveniently described as a “race riot,” absolving the insurance companies, the local, state and national governments and the white community of any responsibility to act or to atone. And yet, within 5 years, much of Greenwood was rebuilt. Business flourished, homeownership expanded, the community reasserted itself in defiance.
Today, Councilmember Hall-Harper tells me that Greenwood struggles against gentrification, against political indifference and against the deep devastation wrought by an urban removal program tied to freeway construction that ran right through the heart of the community in 1968.
Greenwood has been through a lot. But the members of the community I met today are focused on not only telling the full story of Greenwood’s past, but also making sure that the district receives the attention, resources and justice it deserves. It was an honor to spend time in Greenwood. So grateful to everyone who spent part of their day with me.