The magical, mystical, far-off place called Tulsa beckoned multiple souls in the early 1900s. These seekers, white and African-American alike, shared a vintage American optimism. There was indeed a better life, and they came to Tulsa in search of it.
The overwhelming majority of the African-American migrants wound up in the Greenwood District. While much of the recent attention to this area centers on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the rich, dynamic, and uplifting history of the Greenwood District dates back to 1905 and extends to the present.
As Greenwood began to emerge in the early 1900s, rigid segregation held sway. As families arrived and homes sprang up in the Greenwood area, the need for retail and service businesses, schools and entertainment became pronounced. A class of African-American entrepreneurs rose to the occasion, creating a vibrant and vital self-contained economy that would become the talk of the nation.
Segregation, ironically, gave rise to a nationally-renowned entrepreneurial center. None other than African-American legend Booker T. Washington dubbed the community "Black Wall Street" for its bustling business climate. The Greenwood District attracted visionary trailblazers from all over America who sought new opportunities and fresh challenges.
De jure (i.e., legal) segregation forced blacks to do business among themselves and allowed the Greenwood District to prosper. Dollars circulated within the black community. Greenwood's insular service economy rested on a foundation of necessity. This necessity, in turn, invented an incredibly talented cadre of African-American men and women .
Savvy entrepreneurs like Simon Berry developed their businesses around the needs of the community, niche marketing by today's standards. Berry created a nickel-a-ride jitney service with his topless Model-T Ford, ran a bustling bus line that he ultimately sold to the City of Tulsa, owned the Royal Hotel, and shuttled wealthy oil barons on a charter airline service he operated with partner James Lee Northington Sr., a successful black building contractor.
Berry made as much as $500 a day in the early 1920s.
Prominent professionals such as Dr. A.C. Jackson transcended the color line. Jackson, called the most able Negro surgeon in America by the Mayo brothers (of Mayo Clinic fame), treated both black and white patients. Jackson died tragically in the riot of 1921. Gunned down by a teenage boy while surrendering at his residence, Jackson, lacking medical attention, bled to death.
Brilliant educators like E.W. Woods, principal of Booker T. Washington High School for more than 30 years, gained respect and renown throughout the city. So enamored of Tulsa was Woods that he came here by foot from Memphis, Tennessee, in answer to a call for "colored" teachers. Woods became known as "the quintessential Tulsan" for his preeminent leadership in the realm of public education. When he died in 1948, his funeral had to be held at the Tulsa Convention Center to accommodate all the mourners.
Industrious people like Lula and John Wesley Williams found economic success. The Williams family owned and operated several businesses, including the landmark Williams Dreamland Theatre, a confectionery and a garage. The Williams' rooming house atop the theater and rental property along Greenwood Avenue further attested to their business acumen.
On Thursdays, the traditional "maid's day off" in Tulsa, Greenwood truly came alive. African-American women who worked in the homes of affluent whites took advantage of the day as an opportunity to "gussie up" and stroll down Greenwood. Confident women like Mabel B. Little operated the beauty salons which catered to them. Little, still a Tulsa resident, remembers her 1917 arrival here from the all-black town of Boley. She was 17 and arrived on a Frisco train with $1.25 in her pocket.
She recalled in an earlier interview, "Black business flourished. I remember Huff's Cafe on Cincinnati and Archer. It was a thriving meeting place in the black community. You could go there almost anytime and just about everybody would be there or on their way.
"There were also two popular barbecue spots, Tipton's and Uncle Steve's. J.D. Mann had a grocery store. His wife was a music teacher. We had two funeral parlors, owned by morticians Sam Jackson and Hardel Ragston," Little recalled.
Down on what went by the name of "Deep Greenwood" were eateries, lively dance halls, barber shops and theaters glittering in the night light and a number of medical and dental offices.
From movie theaters to lawyers' offices, from grocery stores to schools , from beauty salons to shoeshine shops, Greenwood had it all. So developed and refined was Greenwood Avenue, the heart of the Greenwood District, that many compared it favorably to such historic streets as Beale Street in Memphis and State Street in Chicago.
Ironically, African-American boosters like E.P. McCabe had early on touted the state of Oklahoma as a virtual "promised land" for African-Americans. McCabe dreamed of an all-black state when he and others in the late 1800s began recruiting African-Americans to rise up from the South and head for the Midwest. Many did just that.
The promise faded, however, when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and the Oklahoma Legislature passed its first piece of legislation, the now infamous Senate Bill 1. That law firmly ensconced segregation as the law of the land in Oklahoma. "Jim Crow" (the name given to rigid segregation laws) reigned. Though McCabe's "black state" dream never materialized, Oklahoma still has a number of historically all-black towns.
The Greenwood pioneers in Tulsa took full business advantage of Jim Crow laws. They seized the opportunity to create a closed economy that defied Jim Crow's fundamental premise: that African-Americans are incapable and inferior. The existence of Greenwood flew in the very face of the inferiority myth.
The success of the Greenwood District, then, could scarcely be tolerated, let alone embraced, by segments of the greater Tulsa community. Fear and jealously swelled over time. AfricanAmerican achievement, including business and property ownership, caused increasing consternation and friction.
Black World War I veterans, having tasted true freedom only on foreign soil, came back to America with heightened expectations. They were confident that their valor and sacrifice in battle entitled them to the basic respect and human dignity so long denied them in America.
But America had not yet changed. The underlying climate of racial oppression for African-Americans in the United States prior to and during 1921 — and the physical intimidation associated with it — seems almost unfathomable by today's standards.
Indeed, in 1919, there were more than 25 major race riots in America. In 1921, 57 African-Americans were lynched. Yet when U.S. Rep. LC. Dyer of Missouri successfully introduced and passed a bill in the United States House of Representatives to make lynching a federal crime in America, the Senate failed to pass it, not once, not twice, but three times. That sent a clear signal. In essence, it was "open season" on African-Americans.
The alleged assault on a young white woman, 17-year-old Sarah Page, by a young black man, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, triggered unprecedented civil unrest. That event was the immediate catalyst, but not the underlying cause, of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the worst such riot in American history.
Fueled by sensational reporting , editorializing in The Tulsa Tribune and a racially hostile climate in general, mob rule held sway. Rowland was arrested. White mobs threatened to lynch him.
These threats were taken seriously, and with just cause. Only months before, an 18-year-old white man, Roy Belton, had been lynched in a public spectacle gruesome beyond measure. Belton had been convicted of killing a white taxi driver, Homer Nida. If even a white man could be publicly lynched, and if lynchings were to be treated by the general public as mere sport, then the "Negro" had little hope of protection.
To prevent the lynching, African-American men marched to the courthouse where Rowland was being held. Law enforcement authorities asked them to leave, verbally assuring Rowland's safety. They left. The lynch talk persisted. A second group of African-American men from the Greenwood District proceeded to the courthouse.
Words were exchanged.
A gun discharged.
The Greenwood community was invaded by a mob of white men numbering in the thousands.
In less than 24 hours, people, property, hopes, and dreams vanished.
The Greenwood District burned to the ground. Property damage ran into the millions. Scores of people, perhaps hundreds, were killed indiscriminately. Countless others were wounded, many grievously. Some African-Americans fled Tulsa, never to return. Tulsa was at once defiled and defined.
Ever courageous, the Greenwood District pioneers rebuilt the community from the ashes. There was no magic in the rebuilding. Greenwood emerged from the ruins by the blood, sweat and tears of the determined African-American pioneers who called it home.
Mabel Little reopened a beauty parlor and her husband, Pressley, operated a shoeshine shop in Greenwood.
Little remembered the riot and rebuilding in a previous interview: "The Lord blessed me and Pressley. At the time I am reckoning, we had worked hard to better ourselves, for seven long hard years. At the end of our efforts, we had two rental houses, a new beauty salon, a comfortable home, with five rooms of brand new furniture. We thought we were sitting pretty.
"In a matter of four days in the early summer of 1921, all went up in the runaway flames and smoke in the horror now known as the Tulsa Race Riot. We lost everything.
"In the end, we didn't get hardly any help from the white community. We had to save our own, use what small means we had and cooperate together. Our top wages then were $5 to $10 a week, and we couldn't even borrow money. We had to cooperate together; there was no other choice. Little by little, we built our business back up — beauty shops, our own drug stores, grocery stores, our own barbershops, tailors’ shops, you name it."
Rampant land speculation, proposed zoning changes that would have made rebuilding cost-prohibitive, and a lack of community and governmental leadership could not quell the spirit of the Greenwood pioneers. These challenges, daunting though they may have been, were rebuffed by the Greenwood community.
The black law firm of Spears, Franklin & Associates, for example, successfully overturned a City of Tulsa fire ordinance that would have made rebuilding in Greenwood impossible for many. The firm also provided legal assistance to riot victims. It lodged claims against the City of Tulsa and insurance companies for damage occasioned by the riot.
Beyond that, the firm counseled and consoled riot victims and made urgent appeals to African-Americans nationwide for assistance. (One of the firm's partners, B.C. Franklin, is the father of famed historian John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus at Duke University.)
The American Red Cross, under the able leadership of Maurice Willows (the grandfather of Tulsa's Bob Hower) by all accounts provided stellar care for victims of the riot. Food, shelter, clothing, medical assistance-the American Red Cross supplied desperately-needed comfort and calm in the wake of Tulsa's manmade storm.
Over time, Greenwood would regain her vaunted status as America's "Black Wall Street." Mt. Zion Baptist Church epitomizes the remarkable courage and determination of the people of post-riot Greenwood. Mt. Zion was only six weeks old when the riot broke out. The $75,000 church had been built with the help of a $50,000 loan from an individual in the community.
Rumors during the unrest that preceded the riot included a fictitious but persistent story that Mt. Zion housed a stash of arms for the looming racial conflict. The mob torched Mt. Zion during the riot, leaving nothing but a dirt floor basement.
Church members, still dazed by the devastation, had to make several key decisions. They elected to continue to meet, often in private homes. When presented with the option of extinguishing the $50,000 mortgage through bankruptcy, the church leadership balked. While the legal obligation could perhaps be eliminated, they felt a moral obligation to pay off the loan, even absent the building. Decades later, Mt. Zion did just that. The church paid off the loan and raised enough money to build a new structure.
Remarkably, and in stunningly short order, the Greenwood District came alive once again, bigger and better than ever.
George W. Buckner, special representative of the National Urban League, captured an outsider's view of Greenwood during the post-riot and rebuilding phase in a 1922 article "Second View of City of Ruins" saying:
"'Wonderful' is the spontaneous acclaim of anyone who visits Tulsa today after seeing the burned area immediately following the disaster there June 1st of last year. The former business section which consisted largely of Greenwood Avenue has been transformed from ragged, unsightly walls to modern structures where small, thriving businesses of every kind are meeting the needs of the people. The formed [sic] residential sections which resembled a camp of soldiers in war, having been covered with tents and improvised shacks, are now being rapidly replaced by more substantial homes ..."
By 1942, some 242 businesses called the Greenwood District home. The Greenwood story speaks to the triumph of the human spirit and to the timeless, universal virtues we all cherish: faith, determination, integrity, humility and compassion.
Integration, urban renewal, a new business climate and the aging of the early Greenwood pioneers caused the community to decline through the years, beginning in the 1960s and continuing throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Now, as the area sits poised for a renaissance, the ghosts of Greenwood past loom large on the horizon.