BLACK WALL STREET: Tulsa 1921 Race Riot
Panoramic view of the devesttion caused by what became known as the "Tulsa Race Riot of 1921" which occurred in Greenwood, Oklahoma destroying the Black Township which had become known as "The Black Wall Street."
Greenwood, OK was founded by O.W. Gurley, a black entrepreneur and landowner from Arkansas who moved from Perry OK in 1906 to Tulsa and settled on land "to be purchased by Coloreds only." He built a boarding house next to the Frisco Tracks, naming the dusty trail in front of it Greenwood Ave. Many blacks, fleeing the South and looking for a new life roomed in his house while finding jobs and land for their own home. Gurley set up the "boundaries" of Greenwood, which are still well-known today: Pine Street to the North (Greenwood Ave turns into Garrison St. at Pine St); Archer St and the Frisco tracks to the South; Cincinnati St on the West; and Lansing St on the East. Gurley purchased and built numerous other buildings, all of which were lost in the 1921 Race Riot.
Black Wall Street was built on the backs of men like Simon Berry, an experienced pilot and astute businessman, who started the city’s first transportation system, Berry’s Jitney Service. Adding buses and chartered airplanes, Berry eventually became one of the largest employers of blacks and, after the sale of his business his uniformed drivers became a symbol of racial progress. He continued to make his mark well into the 20th century, even after the Race Riot of 1921 destroyed everything he owned. He was honored with a plaque and a tree in his memory at the Black Wall Street Memorial in 1996.
Another "founding father" of The Black Wall Street was James Henri Goodwin. With just a 4th-grade education, he moved to Tulsa, encouraged by O.W. Gurley’s promotion of the Oklahoma "Promised Land." Beginning as a variety store clerk, he eventually became the youngest entrepreneur on The Black Wall Street of America with interest in many businesses and he later became the owner of the two oldest continuing business enterprises in North Tulsa, Jackson Undertaking Co. and The Oklahoma Eagle. He became an attorney after age 50 and was instrumental in saving the last few structures left on Greenwood Ave; he and his son are honored in the Greenwood Cultural Center as "illustrious examples of the best tradition of the Black Wall Street’s pioneering souls."A Black Day on Black Wall Street began like any other until a white mob arrived at the courthouse demanding the neck of a black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. Post-Civil War America had become a battleground between blacks and whites with the main weapon in the South and many other areas being the noose. Lynchings were common and became the single largest category of unsolved murders in the US. Many Blacks were lynched after being falsely accused of crimes ranging from stealing property to assault. It was a blight on American Society as mobs seeking their own brand of justice seemed to have free rein.
The heated confrontation at the courthouse that day pitted two prominent black businessmen and a newspaper publisher against a huge mob preparing to assault the jailhouse. As attempts were made to quell the rising anger of the mob, a gun was drawn and fired and thus began the destruction of The Black Wall Street. It was horrendous as Greenwood Ave was reduced to a killing field surrounded by burning homes and businesses, many set afire by a well-planned aerial assault of planes dropping nitroglycerine canisters to destroy the black community.
One of the two businessmen involved in the incident at the courthouse was J.B. Stradford, the son of a runaway slave, who purchased his freedom from his master and settled in Tulsa, OK. He later became the first black attorney in the Territory and was defending the accused man being held in jail that day. Ironically, he and others who tried to avoid the trouble were indicted for inciting a riot, and several of them eventually became fugitives. Stradford was rescued by his son, and he lived with him for years in Chicago; he was ultimately pardoned by Governor Frank Keating, who also apologized to his family.
The local law enforcement and the Oklahoma National Guard units were later accused of joining with the white rioters who were rousting out blacks from hiding. While some white residents gave refuge to blacks fleeing for their lives, most blacks were sent to concentration camps for their own safety, but some were killed even while surrendering. 25,000 strong, the rioting white army destroyed the best that the Black community of Tulsa had to offer -- the best and brightest businessmen as well as the most successful and lucrative enterprises in the city.
It was a Black Day all around as the good name of many people, black and white, was blackened by hatred, the buildings and property of the people of North Tulsa were left in black, charred ruins, and the bright Oklahoma sky was blackened with the smoke of fires lit by the blackness of the human spirit – racism.
Greenwood Avenue, known as The Black Wall Street, was almost completely destroyed that day in 1921, ultimately leaving only one structure standing, the Mackey House, built and owned by Sam and Lucy Mackey, and now operated as a museum by the Greenwood Cultural Center next door. It stands in its new location as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Black community of North Tulsa as well as to the indestructible spirit of Black America.
Original Artist Sketch Created For Our Heritage Magazine By Ronney Stevens www.artbyronney.com
Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which had only recently been completed and paid for before the riot, was destroyed.
GREENWOOD, OKLAHOMA LIVES ON!