The Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, grew into the most famous and prosperous black urban community in the United States during the early 1900s. Dubbed the “Negro Wall Street” by educator Booker T. Washington, this community had a flourishing population that included both a working class and a middle class of prosperous citizens.
After the Civil War, most of the all-black townships that had been established in the United States were located in Indian and Oklahoma Territories. One of those townships, Greenwood, was created in 1906 by one of Tulsa’s earliest pioneers, O.W. Gurley, who had come from Arkansas to Oklahoma in the 1889 Land Rush. A black educator and entrepreneur who gained wealth by speculating on land, Gurley purchased forty acres on the northern outskirts of Tulsa, which itself had been incorporated only eight years earlier in 1898. Gurley sold his land to African Americans who soon developed a small community. Tulsa grew rapidly because of the oil boom in the surrounding countryside and by 1910 annexed Greenwood.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Greenwood appealed to African American southerners migrating to the North and West in hopes of escaping the economic and political repression of blacks in the South. Many of them came to Tulsa and soon created a prosperous community in segregated Greenwood.
According to 1920 city directories, there were 108 black business establishments, including 2 newspapers, 41 groceries and meat markets, 30 cafes and restaurants. There were also offices for 33 professionals, including 15 physicians and attorneys in Tulsa’s African American community serving the nearly 10,000 residents. In addition, Deep Greenwood had clothing stores, funeral parlors, billiard halls, hotels, barbershops, hairdressers, shoemakers, tailors, nightclubs, and two movie theaters. Because most white establishments refused to serve African Americans, black entrepreneurs held a captive market rich in pent-up demand.
By 1920, the black “Wall Street” also had twenty-two churches and was a center for jazz and blues music. It was the place where a young Count Basie first encountered big-band jazz. The schools in Greenwood were described as exceptional compared to those in the “white” areas of town. Deep Greenwood, as it was now often called, was further advanced economically than some of the white areas of Tulsa.
On May 31, 1921, the Tulsa Riot nearly put an end to the thriving district. An estimated 300 black men, women, and children were killed and thousands severely injured. Most of the thirty-five square blocks of Greenwood, both businesses and residential neighborhoods, were destroyed by white rioters and nearly 10,000 thousand African Americans, virtually the entire black population of Tulsa, was left homeless.
After the destruction of Greenwood, the city of Tulsa denied aid to the survivors of the riot. However, the African American businessmen and residents of Greenwood took it upon themselves to rebuild their community, using their own resources and help sent from across the United States. By the summer of 1922, more than eighty businesses were again up and running.
The Tulsa Riot of 1921, although a major setback for Greenwood, was not the event that caused the decline in Deep Greenwood’s economy. The national Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s eventually led to Civil Rights Act of 1964. As African Americans began to use businesses and accommodations throughout Tulsa and move throughout the city, the Greenwood businesses began to decline. Urban renewal and freeway construction in Tulsa in the 1960s and 1970s accelerated that process.
Today, Urban Renewal bulldozers have flattened much of Greenwood. However in 1965, Edward Goodwin Sr., founder of The Oklahoma Eagle newspaper, opted to purchase a few spared blocks of land in order to preserve some of Greenwood’s history. Building the Greenwood Cultural Center and rehabilitating the block of land has led to a new life for the district. The cultural center has hosted eight Jazz and Juneteenth festivals and helped to not only reintroduce the community’s culture but also spread the history of Greenwood.