Decades After the Tulsa Race Massacre, Urban ‘Renewal’ Sparked Black Wall Street’s Second Destruction

In the 1960s, construction of four federal highways brought the rebuilt neighborhood of Greenwood’s prosperity to an abrupt end

View of an unspecified parade on Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1930s or 1940s. Among the visible businesses are the offices of the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper at 117 North Greenwood Avenue
A few short years after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood’s homes and businesses came back. This photograph shows a parade held in the Oklahoma neighborhood during the 1930s or '40s. Photo by Greenwood Cultural Center / Getty Images

The Tulsa Daily World’s June 2, 1921, morning edition headline read: “Dead Estimated at 100: City is Quiet. $2000 to Start Fund for Relief. Negros Gladly Accept Guards. 5,000 Negro Refugees Guarded in Camp at County Fairgrounds.”

Fewer than 24 hours after Ku Klux Klan leaders—along with the Tulsa Police Department and the Oklahoma National Guard—carried out the nation’s deadliest and most destructive massacre, Tulsa’s paper of record was already at work crafting a narrative that would shape the way that the city would think about the massacre in Greenwood for the next 100 years.

Thanks to recent scholarship and pop culture depictions of the massacre in Greenwood, more and more Americans are coming to know the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre that destroyed Black Wall Street. But the common narrative—that the neighborhood never recovered after the massacre—is incorrect. In fact, Greenwood’s resilient residents rebuilt their community almost immediately after the events—in defiance of hastily-enacted racist zoning codes—giving rise to the neighborhood’s moniker of Black Wall Street after, not before, the massacre. And while a price cannot be put on the 300 lives lost, the violence that really destroyed Black Wall Street wasn’t physical, but structural.

Greenwood’s Rebuilding

In December of 1921, Red Cross relief leader Maurice Willows compiled a report with a more accurate account of the destruction of Greenwood. The report estimated a death toll of just under 300 and 714 wounded. It also reported that his team of 44 staffers and several volunteers had provided aid to more than five thousand people, and that of the 1,256 homes that were destroyed, 764 were already being rebuilt.

Panorama view of the razed Greenwood neighborhood
Panorama view of the razed Greenwood neighborhood, as seen a day or two after the 1921 Tulsa massacre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The speed at which residents began to rebuild their neighborhood is astonishing, especially considering that within a week of the near-total destruction of Greenwood, the mayor, the City Commission, and a group led by Klan leader W. Tate Brady called the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange did everything in their power to stop them. Tulsa’s City Commission hastily worked to rezone Greenwood—from residential to industrial—and re-drew fire code restrictions, stating buildings must be built using only brick, not wood. The commission also unveiled a master plan for the district, calling for Tulsa’s Black neighborhood to be moved further north, away from the railroad tracks and out of the downtown area, freeing up valuable land that the Real Estate Exchange planned to develop. Insurance companies refused to pay claims for any of Greenwood’s property owners, siding with Mayor T.D. Evans and police chief John A. Gustafson, who blamed Black Tulsans for the destruction and criminally charged 55 Black men for “inciting a riot” (their names were not cleared until 1996).

Thus Greenwood’s rebuilding was an act of defiance. Homes were built under cover of night so that patrolling police could not catch anyone violating the new building codes. Others took a legal route: Attorney B.C. Franklin, who had moved to Tulsa just two months before Greenwood was attacked on May 31, sued the City of Tulsa, the mayor, the commission, the police chief, and several other defendants and was victorious. A panel of three Tulsa County judges agreed with Franklin that the city did not have the right to prevent landowners in Greenwood from rebuilding their homes and businesses.

It wasn’t just homes that were rebuilt. The businesses came back, too. A September 14, 1922, article in Oklahoma City’s Black Dispatch celebrated entrepreneur Loula Williams’ reopening her Williams Dreamland Theatre, and the family’s family’s confectionery and office suites on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street.

“They just were not going to be kept down. They were determined not to give up,” recalled Eunice Jackson, a survivor of the massacre, in an interview for Eddie Faye Gates’ 1997 book, They Came Searching. “So they rebuilt Greenwood and it was just wonderful. It became known as The Black Wall Street of America.”

Footage of the Prosperous Greenwood and the Tulsa Massacre | Smithsonian Channel

Another survivor, Juanita Alexander Lewis Hopkins, told Gates, “The North Tulsa after the [massacre] was even more impressive than before...That is when Greenwood became known as ‘The Black Wall Street of America.’”

Film footage shot by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones from 1925-1928 shows a bustling, thriving Greenwood, confirming recent data collected by the Tulsa Historical Society showing that a few short years after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood’s homes and businesses came back. It’s difficult to understate the scale of Greenwood’s recovery; unlike other disasters like the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania or San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, Greenwood was left to rebuild entirely on its own.

Tulsa Model Cities and Urban “Renewal”

What often gets erased in writing about the Tulsa Race Massacre is the 45 years of prosperity in Greenwood after the attack and the events that led to the neighborhood’s second destruction: The Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1965 and 1968. As early as 1957, Tulsa’s Comprehensive Plan included creating a ring road (locally dubbed the Inner-Dispersal Loop, or IDL); a tangle of four highways encircling the downtown area. The north (I-244) and east (U.S. 75) sections of the IDL were designed to replace the dense, diverse, mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian, and transit-oriented Greenwood and Kendall-Whittier neighborhoods.

An article in the May 4, 1967, issue of the Tulsa Tribune announced, “The Crosstown Expressway slices across the 100 block of North Greenwood Avenue, across those very buildings that Edwin Lawrence Goodwin, Sr. (publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle) describes as ‘once a Mecca for the Negro businessman—a showplace.’ There still will be a Greenwood Avenue, but it will be a lonely, forgotten lane ducking under the shadows of a big overpass.”

Despite these protests, the construction of the IDL was completed in 1971. Mabel Little, whose family lost their home and businesses in the 1921 massacre, rebuilt and lost them both again in 1970. Little told the Tulsa Tribune in 1970, “You destroyed everything we had. I was here in it, and the people are suffering more now than they did then.”

What the city could not steal in 1921, it systematically paved over 50 years later. In an interview for They Came Searching, educator Jobie Holderness said, “Urban renewal not only took away our property, but something else more important—our black unity, our pride, our sense of achievement and history. We need to regain that. Our youth missed that and that is why they are lost today, that is why they are in ‘limbo’ now.”

The Victory of Greenwood

Collection of 20 historical biographies that dispel myths and inaccuracies about the events leading up to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

Reparations and Public Policy

The conversation around reparations for Greenwood today centers around the massacre, but more than 100 years of discriminatory policies have continually deprived Greenwood and its people of opportunities.

Yes, the Greenwood of 1905-1921 contained a great deal of wealth, but Black Tulsans, for the most part, could not vote, owing to a voter suppression act which passed at the state level in 1910. Jim Crow discrimination laws were put in place almost immediately following Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907. Hotels and restaurants in Tulsa were not desegregated until the mid 1960s. Schools were not desegregated until 1971. A 1916 housing discrimination ordinance was the law of the land in Tulsa until 1963. Redlining, beginning in the mid-1930s, made it difficult for Black Tulsans to own property in the only area of town they could live. These policies all led to Greenwood’s land being under-valued, which then led to the area being targeted for demolition as a “blighted” area of town when it came time to decide where to build highways explicitly designed for white Tulsans’ convenient commute to and from its newly-built suburbs.

Tulsa has two prevailing cultural narratives that hide a deeper truth about why Greenwood continues to suffer today.

The first is that an elevator encounter between a Black man and a white woman resulted in the death of 300 people, the burning of 1,256 homes, and the destruction of 36 blocks of property at the hands of more than 200 white Tulsans deputized by the police department and planes that bombed the neighborhood. Many survivors of the riot believed, and some historians believe, however, that the attack was planned and coordinated in advance by city leaders to steal Greenwood's land, arguing that the planes loaded with fire bombs, the mass destruction, and the three detention centers would have taken time to set up. News reports from the time cite eyewitness accounts of the ways white Tulsans carefully planned their attack, and a lawsuit at the time alleged that "the city's officials....did...form a conspiracy for the purpose and to the end of destroying the life of the citizens of Tulsa." What is known for certain—as chronicled in a 1929 article in the American Mercury by civil rights activist Walter F. White — is that businessmen had unsuccessfully tried to buy parts of Greenwood in the years leading up to the massacre.

A February 2016 photo of a parade in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Interstate 244 is visible overhead.
Interstate 244 is visible overhead in this February 2016 photo of a parade held in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

The second is that desegregation gave Black Tulsans more of a choice of where to live and work. In fact, deprived of generational wealth—twice—Black Tulsans weren’t clamoring to live with the white community. Nor did they have the means; by and large, Greenwood residents who were victims of eminent domain were compensated for their homes and businesses at far below market rate. As a result, homeownership among Black families plummeted after the 1960s.

In Riot and Remembrance by James S. Hirsch, Mabel Little remarked, “At the time of the [massacre], we had ten different business places for rent. Today, I pay rent.” Data from Tulsa’s Equality Indicators Report from 2018-2020 shows that homeownership for Black families is half that of white families.

These policies were by no means unique to Tulsa. Books like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America, and several other books and documentaries describe just how disastrous public policies have been in communities of color while advancing white suburban sprawl.

But without acknowledging how these narratives shape public policy, Tulsa is stuck at a point where it cannot have a conversation about reparations, because it doesn't know its own history. Yet on May 7, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed HB 1775 into law, banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, colleges and universities. This legislation, combined with the recent sunsetting of the 1921 Race Massacre Commission (founded in 1997), is a source of great concern among Tulsa educators and historians who say that there is still much work to be done in researching and teaching the history of Greenwood.

Even more worrisome is that these cultural narratives will persist, preventing the city from having conversations about changing public policies and improving Tulsa for everyone.

Carlos Moreno is a graphic designer at CAP Tulsa, Oklahoma's largest anti-poverty nonprofit organization and a national leader in early childhood education. He is also the author of The Victory of Greenwood, published by Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press.

This article was originally published by Next City, a nonprofit news organization devoted to inspiring greater economic, environmental, and social justice in cities.

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