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A hundred years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, Black Wall Street faces a new fight

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Posted at 10:41 AM, Sep 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-28 17:09:04-04

TULSA, Okla. — This year, the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre came to national light. But the narrative around it - that the Black community never recovered from its decimation - isn't correct.

Black Wall Street developed in the Greenwood area in the aftermath of the massacre, and it stood strong for decades until the federal government authorized highways to come right through it. That's the story that goes less told: how the hurdles and struggles of racial equity have never been isolated to just one awful moment. Persistence is constant, and so are the efforts to suppress it.

“People are attracted to the shiny object,” said Hannibal Johnson, author of Black Wall Street 100. “The shiny object here is the massacre itself. But the massacre is not the story. The ultimate story here is the story of the indomitable human spirit.”

A century ago, in a span of a few hours, white mobs looted homes, burned businesses, and left a thriving Black community destroyed. It’s known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Most who know of Greenwood know of that moment. What’s less known is the century of history since, and the story it tells of both Tulsa and America.

After Greenwood burned, most residents didn’t run. They helped one of the wealthiest Black communities in America rebuild.

“There’s footage by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones in 1924, just three years after the massacre, and many people mistake this footage from being before the massacre,” said Carlos Moreno, author of The Victory of Greenwood. “You just see this thriving, lively neighborhood again. And to see that, just three years after it had all been taken away from them, is just an incredible inspiration.”

The photos and videos from the decades that followed show a model of Black perseverance. Less obvious is a different persistence: one of oppression.

“You have insurance companies who were refusing to pay insurance claims,” Moreno said. “You have the city criminally charging 54 Black men for inciting a riot. So, you have a city that is doing everything it can to stop this neighborhood from being rebuilt, and yet they succeed in spite of all that.”

Greenwood survived a physical massacre. It was rebuilt through segregation and bureaucratic injustice. It lasted decades as Black Wall Street until a second destruction, and this time all legal.

“The city had drawn up a master plan to build a series of highways around the downtown area,” said Moreno. “The city didn’t have the money to build these highways until the Federal Highway Act comes around almost 10 years later.”

Federal funds enabled the city to use eminent domain to clear out Greenwood. An interstate was erected through the neighborhood’s heart.

By no means is Tulsa alone. The 1921 massacre has gained attention, but acts of mass racial violence took place at that time from Little Rock to Baltimore. The federal act that put a highway through Greenwood did the same to Black communities like Montgomery, Kansas City, and Nashville.

“You know, it’s just another trauma,” said Johnson. “Reconnecting the community is really difficult in light of that sort of huge monstrosity. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

In 2021, a new narrative has emerged: a narrative of Greenwood rising yet again. To visit today is to see the outward appearance of a neighborhood honoring its history and building toward the future.

But once again, it’s not nearly so simple.

“Looking at the state of Greenwood right now, I just feel like a token,” said Queen Alexander.

She is a descendant of massacre survivors and now runs the Greenwood Gallery, right across from a new museum commemorating the massacre. She is surrounded by new construction and gentrification.

“Right now, no one Black owns these buildings,” she said, and when it comes to those new buildings, that’s a common complaint. “Whoever has the power, they’re choosing what they want. Therefore, they’re not necessarily thinking about the neighborhood and their history.”

For example, Alexander said, “I’m a Black business owner on Greenwood, but I don’t even have a parking spot.”

Today, Black Wall Street borders a minor league baseball field. Black Tulsa is no longer confined to one neighborhood, and the Black identity of Greenwood still exists largely within white confines.

“It’s like progress with crutches or shackles on it, you know?” Alexander said. “It’s like an illusion.”

It is easy to view 1921 as far removed from the modern day. But the components that fueled a massacre have hovered over Greenwood ever since. It’s the grit of Black Tulsa against a tide of crashing waves.

“The problem of race in America is an age-old problem,” Johnson said. “Tulsa is not unlike many communities in America that have experienced historical racial trauma. The question for communities across the nation is how do we heal?”