One hundred years ago, the United States experienced two of the most bloody and destructive days in its history. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, dozens—perhaps hundreds—of blacks were murdered by white mobs, and three dozen city blocks, previously filled with bustling enterprises and civic life, were burned to rubble. This was racism at its worst in America. Yet there are lessons from those dark and painful days that should give us wisdom and hope for a better today and tomorrow.
In 1921, the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood was a shining example of progress and prosperity for blacks post-Civil War. The population of Tulsa had exploded by over 70,000 people from 1900 to 1920 due to the discovery of oil. Greenwood became home to 11,000 blacks. Racism was enshrined in strictly-enforced Jim Crow laws and segregation, yet blacks thrived by creating an independent community supported by and catering to the every need of its black residents.
There were an estimated nearly 200 businesses in Greenwood. There were clothing stores, shoe stores, tailors, cleaners, beauticians, barbershops, drugstores, jewelry stores, an upholstery store, grocery stores, and meat markets. Greenwood boasted 15 doctors, one chiropractor, two dentists, and three lawyers. There was a library, two schools, a hospital, a public health office, as well as black fraternal lodges and churches. There were many restaurants, bars and clubs, hotels, and even a 750-seat theater that offered live musicals, theatrical performances, and silent movies accompanied by a piano player. The thriving business district became known as Black Wall Street.
In addition, there were the private residences that were home to the workers and families who mostly held jobs outside of Greenwood but generated the dollars that supported all of the neighborhood’s economic activity. A 2001 Oklahoma commission report on the massacre noted, “Grit, hard work, and determination were the main reasons for this success, as were the entrepreneurial skills that were imported to Tulsa from smaller communities across Oklahoma.”
After the Tulsa Massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921, little of this commerce and civic life remained. A false allegation of a black shoe shine man assaulting a white female elevator operator triggered an angry white mob to destroy Greenwood and take many lives.
The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses burned. Thousands were left homeless. The property damage amounting to $22 million in today’s dollars does not compare to the loss of life and the terror of those two days. Black men, women, and children were chased down, detained, shot at, and even shot to death.
What emerged from the smoldering rubble was the determination and grit to rebuild Greenwood. With no government assistance and little from insurance companies, which largely either denied claims of those who lost their homes (if they had insurance at all) or did not compensate business owners for lost business inventory, black residents set about rebuilding by working together and leveraging their assets.
Many residents used their land as collateral to secure short-term mortgages from financial institutions, wealthier people, and community lending pools. Within two decades, the homeownership rate among Black residents in Tulsa was back up to nearly half (49%) and about 240 businesses were in operation. Once again, commerce returned to Greenwood as grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, drugstores, pool halls and doctors’ offices were operating once again.
What’s happened since then? The assets of homeowners and business owners should have been passed down to successive generations, helping blacks to build generational wealth. Unfortunately, that did not occur, in part because well-intentioned government policies introduced in the 1950s and 1960s aimed at desegregation and development diluted the economic power of blacks.
In the face of discriminatory laws and policies, blacks had little choice but to build up their segregated community in the 1920s. By purchasing land and developing businesses close together, blacks created a tight enclave that built up their economic power and kept their dollars circulating almost exclusively internally and helping their community. But as Tulsa desegregated over time, black-owned businesses could not compete with white-owned counterparts.
Urban renewal efforts in the 1950s and 1960s used federal funds to demolish buildings in the name of blight removal but eroded those black spaces and cleared the way for redevelopment by anyone. In addition, the government decided to relocate businesses to clear the way for a highway through Greenwood.
Although black economic power is diminished, a new generation of entrepreneurs are fighting to reclaim Greenwood and revive Black Wall Street. They face significant challenges from a far more integrated community, the growth of big retailers, and the land not blacks owned, but the same grit and determination their ancestors possessed can lead them forward.
As Rose Washington, chief executive of the Tulsa Economic Development Corp., a small business lender, explained, “Rebuilding Historic Greenwood to what it once was in 1921 will be impossible in that location. But we certainly can build the mind-set of Black business owners to thrive wherever they are.”
A mindset of self-reliance, independence, and resourcefulness has helped minority communities across the country navigate similar changes. Black enclaves across the country have yielded to desegregation and redevelopment. Of course, desegregation is progress. But an unfortunate outcome is that there are also fewer blacks owning businesses and homes—the keys to generational wealth—than in times past.
Supporting the revival of historically black communities would be worthy goals for nonprofit organizations. Yet that is not what Black Lives Matters (BLM) is focused on. Beyond policing, we only hear about demands for more government aid and programs for blacks with no consideration of the consequences. Tulsa’s experience demonstrates that government can crowd out, push out, and even stamp out the ability for individuals to be independent, owners, and entrepreneurial.
Instead of more dependency programs, we need to fan the entrepreneurial spirit and knock down the government-imposed barriers to work, business ownership, and home ownership for blacks, minorities, and low-income households in general.
Americans are resilient, enterprising, and on a continuous path to wealth and prosperity. Black Tulsans achieved that 100 years ago in the face of pernicious racism, providing an example of what’s possible.