Nehemiah Frank’s online media company gives a voice to Tulsa’s African-American community.
Tulsan Nehemiah Frank never anticipated that Black Wall Street Times, the digital news media company he founded in April, would go from 1,000 to 10,000 hits online in a matter of months.
A middle school teacher, Frank fronts the BWST by night with the help of Managing Editor Orisabiyi Williams and contributor Liz Frank. He acknowledges the weight of owning a growing online media company that speaks for the underrepresented — in a political climate that seems increasingly hostile to both the press and to minorities.
How has BWST changed from the original vision?
For me, the vision was just to have a small town little paper for the north side. A real sense of community. I feel like that was something that was missing. Like, “There’s a school board meeting, make sure you’re there! There’s a PTA meeting, you should go! There’s a rally for equality, make sure you get there! There’s a city council meeting coming up, make sure your voice is heard!” Just really trying to get my community civically engaged. That was like the number one goal that I had. And it’s done that and then some.
That’s fantastic — and what’s readership like now?
Readership really jumped during the Betty Shelby trial. I wrote this article called “Who’s on trial?” Was it Terrence Crutcher on Trial, or was it Betty Shelby on trial? It just got so much attention. I think people from all over the country were peeking in at it. Our viewership went from like, 1,000 to nearly 10,000 in maybe 2-3 months. I don’t even know 10,000 people, you know what I mean?
You mention the incredible impact of finally having a black teacher in high school. What else shaped you on your educational journey?
I graduated from high school when I was 19. I almost did not make it. I think my GPA was like a 1.9. I Went from a 1.9 GPA to becoming the president of Phi Beta Kappa in college. I went to college in Chicago, and I attended Trinity United Church of Christ, which is the same church that the Obamas went to for 20 years.
So you know it must be good.
It was a life-changing experience. And I’m not a real religious person, but... it was the first time in my life where I had seen this huge body of African Americans, people who looked just like me, that were aiming for the stars. You go to that church and the pastor Jeremiah Wright graduated from Harvard. Like, he went to Harvard just to come and preach? It was the first time where I actually felt affirmed. I felt like it was okay to be black. I spent a good about of time in that church and around the people. They were doctors, they were lawyers, they were teachers.
One Thanksgiving, the pastor said, “Alright everybody I want you to wear African clothing for Thanksgiving service.” I was like, African? I don’t have anything African ... so I went and bought my African clothes and went back to church that night. When I came back, there were 3,000 African Americans dressed in traditional African clothing. Just imagine what that looks like. I remember tears just falling down my face. I’m looking at people around me and they’re all crying. And I’m just like, wow, this is the best thing. It was like I was healed, you know?
What did it allow people to feel?
I think we felt whole. Because yes, we are American citizens, and I’m definitely happy to be here. No one likes the history of this country; not even the racist people like to talk about it. But it was empowering. It was the first time in my life I had heard about Black Wall Street.
And it was at a church in Chicago!
And I’m grown, I’m in college. And I hear about my hometown. I told myself I would never go back to Tulsa ever. Because I hear, “Oh it’s such a racist town, you’ll never get a job, you’ll never be successful.” But the way he spoke about that place... I was like why am I here? Like, my grandmother, my grandfather, my family, my cousins... everybody was home. I’m just sitting in this church and I’m like, I need to go home. So when I came back here, it was just terrible. North Tulsa is so unrecognizable from when I was a kid. It’s like a third world country up there, it really is.
What do you think happened? Was there a specific event?
I would definitely say the 2007 ice storm. The people were already being attacked by the system. Whether it was intentionally or unintentionally, the people were being left out. It wasn’t that it was a high crime area — people were just getting old. And young people were leaving because they didn’t want to come back, who’s going to take care of the older people? So grass gets high, more low-income people started moving in, and the community went downhill.
Do you see any movement?
I do. There’s a lot of young African American professionals and Millennials period. My friend Erica just bought a house up north, and she’s white, and she teaches at a majority black school. That’s what we need! We need people to really invest.
And live in the communities they work in.
Yeah that’s huge! Don’t just teach there then go back to Jenks. You're not helping. The kid doesn’t see you at Sweet Lisa’s or at the library or at a community meeting, they know that you’re disconnected. That’s powerful when you have people that are really invested in the community.