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The destruction of ‘Black Wall Street’ and its long aftermath

ByTeam BB

Jun 19, 2023

“Don’t you realize that Greenwood was Wakanda before Wakanda?” The poet Phetote Mshairi posed this provocative question standing on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street in Tulsa — the very heart of “Black Wall Street” — on the 97th anniversary of one of the worst racial massacres in American history. The analogy is fitting.

More than a century ago, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was a beacon of success and an unapologetic example of Black self-determination at a time when lynching, legal segregation, rampant discrimination and racialized terror ruled. In 1921, this proud, tightknit 35 square blocks was home to a dozen churches, a garment factory, several restaurants, grocery stores and bars. Its members included nationally renowned doctors and lawyers. The “Negro Metropolis of the Southwest” had its own hospital, library and newspaper, as well as the famous theater Dreamland. A dollar would circulate in Greenwood many times over before it left the community. A district of 11,000 residents, it embodied independence, resistance and resilience — characteristics that invited the ire of white supremacists.

Over the course of 15 hours spanning May 31 and June 1, 1921, thousands of White people — deputized and armed by the city of Tulsa and the National Guard of Oklahoma — razed the Black mecca, killed more than 300 people, demolished 1,256 homes and 150 businesses, and looted the community bare. Greenwood residents were shot at point-blank range with their hands up, gunned down with their backs turned, picked off by machine guns perched atop a hill and bombed from above by planes. Greenwood residents were viciously beaten to death, or tied to vehicles that dragged them to their death. Children hiding under beds were smoked out of homes systematically doused in kerosene and torched. Black residents who had not been killed were rounded up, ridiculed and marched at gunpoint to internment camps by law enforcement, where they were held captive subject to a White employer’s retrieval.

In 1921, Greenwood stood as a beacon of hope for Black Americans fleeing from the South as part of the Great Migration. Tulsa, known as the “Magic City” and the “Oil Capital of the World,” had already attracted White people — with capital and government backing — who seized land occupied by the Five Tribes, displaced many of its indigenous people and exploited its natural resources for profit.

“Built From the Fire,” an exceptional new account of the massacre and its long aftermath by journalist Victor Luckerson, reminds us that the massacre, while shocking and arbitrary, was also foreseeable. Lynching and mob violence in surrounding Black towns and the “Red Summer” of 1919 (named for the blood spilled in racial massacres and riots in dozens of U.S. cities that year) foreshadowed the future. The Tulsa massacre followed a familiar pattern: An African American teenager, Dick Rowland, was falsely accused of assaulting a White teenage girl and thrown into the local jail, where he would be presumed guilty and subject to mob rage rather than the rule of law.

In proud Greenwood, the rumor of Rowland’s imminent lynching catalyzed Black veterans who had served in World War I — and were hungry for democracy at home — into action. Their admirable stand, however, was no match for the alcohol-emboldened hysteria of the White mob, which overpowered them by the thousands.

Notably, for some of the White men, arming themselves with guns, kerosene and matches was a festive occasion; their preparations were deliberate, their actions more intentional than blinded by rage. For some, pillaging the homes of Black people was accompanied by dancing and laughter, with White women and children joining in the blood-sport. Community members took photos of dead Black bodies, displayed the images as trophies, and converted the souvenirs to postcards for profit.

Today, it might be easy to look back nostalgically at Greenwood and see its similarities with Wakanda — the most technologically advanced country on Earth in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” an economically independent and socially insulated fictional African nation impervious to colonialism. More than a century later, with the increase in racial violence, proliferation of hate groups, and persistent economic and opportunity inequities, it is not hard to understand how African Americans might yearn for a Wakanda.

Luckerson, a Tulsa-based journalist, celebrates but doesn’t idealize Greenwood. This compelling account — spanning three generations over a century — does not present the community at its core as a monolith, or skirt the complexities and frailties of its members. Luckerson shines a light on uncomfortable fissures between Oklahoma’s Black freedmen and Black migrants from the South; Native American enslavers and Black enslaved people; and the American Red Cross’s White “angels of mercy” and Tulsa’s mobsters. And he doesn’t shy away from telling the full story of Greenwood’s great leaders. Its members struggled with infidelity, alcoholism and domestic violence. While acutely aware of the racialized impediments to the Black community’s success, Greenwood itself was biased along axes of skin color, class and gender. Like most segregated Black communities, corners of it were also wracked with poverty. Simple stories of Greenwood exceptionalism could lead to the misperception that the district was impervious to trauma. Its leaders were not only strong and resilient; they also suffered significant mental health decline and even early death in the years soon after the massacre.

Luckerson also reveals the porous walls between competing ideologies, and dispels any binary frame of good-versus-bad. Greenwood leaders vacillated between Booker T. Washington’s model of economic power and W.E.B. Du Bois’s model of political power. They weighed Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence against the Black Panthers’ self-defense methods for Black liberation. They straddled the fence between illicit and legitimate entrepreneurship, appreciating how bootlegging and “playing the numbers” stemmed from being shut out of the mainstream economy and created seed money for legal enterprises.

“Built From the Fire,” however, does more than re-create the rich mosaic of life in Greenwood at the time of the massacre; it draws a through line from the infamous attack to the present, illustrating how institutional opposition sought to cement Greenwood’s destruction. This thread, which I have also written about, is critical to a full understanding of the massacre’s legacy and Greenwood’s resilience.

Immediately following the massacre, Tulsa officials enacted barriers, using zoning ordinances and housing restrictions, to keep its Black residents from rebuilding. The civil courts rejected insurance claims filed to recoup destroyed property. The criminal courts failed to find White mobsters guilty of assault, arson and murder. Legislators passed segregation laws, legalizing discrimination. Bankers drew red lines around Black Tulsa, delineating where they would not make loans. When the U.S. Supreme Court held the “separate but unequal” doctrine unconstitutional, opposition took more innocuous forms. The anti-discrimination statutes that came out of the national civil rights movement of the 1960s were outmatched by more bloodless tactics. Decades of government neglect and disinvestment in the district’s infrastructure brought “urban renewal” and the construction of a massive expressway that cut through the heart of Greenwood like a dagger. Luckerson deftly connects the dots from the massacre to Greenwood’s racial inequities and challenges today.

Notably, policies and law have been at the forefront of blocking Greenwood’s effort to reestablish community control and economic prosperity. In the massacre’s immediate aftermath, massacre survivor and lawyer B.C. Franklin sued insurance companies for property damage from a makeshift tent, but was stymied by a Klan-dominated criminal justice system. Eighty years later, renowned historian John Hope Franklin Jr. and more than 100 other survivors brought the first federal lawsuit against the government for its violation of their constitutional rights. As part of an extraordinary team, I was privileged to represent the survivors in this groundbreaking legal effort to seek justice. Upon the lawsuit’s dismissal, we crisscrossed the country at churches, schools and community halls, bringing the Greenwood tragedy into the national consciousness. Finally, the last three living survivors have recently brought an innovative and important case seeking restitution for the state’s creation of a public nuisance. Their work continues to educate and empower.

Luckerson’s thoroughly researched and empathetically written account — anchored in the complex experiences of the Greenwood residents themselves — gives voice to a powerful, exquisitely multifaceted community that refuses to be silenced.

Suzette Malveaux is Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado and Director of the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law. She represented the Tulsa Race massacre survivors in the federal courts, Congress and abroad.

The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s today Street

Random House. 656 pp. $30

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