Tulsa and Black Wall Street

Deep Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1920
Deep Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1920

Overview: Greenwood was a wealthy all-Black community on the Arkansas River in northern Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington called the town “Negro Wall Street” (now called “Black Wall Street”).

Summary: The term “Wall Street” means having a successful economy – making products and providing jobs and services that people need. In Tulsa, railroad tracks separated where white and Black people lived. Blacks in northern Tulsa were not welcome to shop at white owned stores and businesses in southern Tulsa. Black citizens decided to form all-Black towns. They spent their money in their own community aiding other Blacks.

Event: By early 1921, over 10,000 Blacks lived in Black Wall Street centered around Greenwood Avenue. Most Black residents came to Tulsa around the time Oklahoma became a state. Some Blacks were descendants of slaves who had belonged to Native American Indians. They arrived in Oklahoma when the United States government removed the Indians to reservations. Some Blacks were descendants of runaway slaves from the South. Both whites and Blacks moved to Oklahoma when oil was discovered between 1901 and 1905. In 1906, O.W. Gurley founded Black Wall Street. Blacks came from Kansas and the Deep South for an opportunity to get a fresh start and make a good living. Tulsa was a fast-growing modern town for its time. It boasted a skyline with tall office buildings, electric trolley cars, and beautiful homes. Tulsa had four different railroads, telephone service, and an airport by 1921. Most Blacks were not usually allowed to work in the oil industry or manufacturing jobs. Many worked long hours for white business owners as unskilled workers. However, Black Wall Street had many bright and talented professionals. Black Wall Street had its own doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, teachers, dentists, and entertainers. There were over two hundred businesses. The town had newspapers, schools, theaters, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, hotels, parks, churches, a library, and large homes. Black Wall Street was a symbol of success. It was one of the wealthiest Black towns in America for fifteen years until the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, which burnt the town to the ground.

Impact: Efforts to try to return Black Wall Street to its glory have been difficult. The town was rebuilt and did well in the 1930s and 1940s. But in the 1950s when desegregation – the separation of Black and white people – ended, Blacks could spend their money outside of their Black community. Talented Black people moved out of Black Wall Street. Staying together and supporting their own race became less important. In the 1960s urban renewal programs allowed privately owned properties to be taken down and new businesses/ buildings were built. A new interstate highway ran through the middle of the town. That ended all hopes of Black Wall Street regaining its former wealth.

Take-away: When people stop looking out for each other it can be difficult to succeed. Urban renewal and land development can help make a city grow. But it can also destroy people’s businesses and way of life.