Black Wall Street: Then and Now
Tulsa’s extraordinary Black neighborhood in images 100 years ago and today
I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa. There is complete separation of the races, so that a colored town is within the white town. — W. E. B. Du Bois
Piles of rubble still smoldered in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s African American district when educator and activist W. E. B. Du Bois reflected on the conditions leading up to what remains arguably the worst single incident of racist violence in U.S. history. From May 31 through June 1, 1921, white mobs decimated the Greenwood district, destroying businesses, churches, schools, a public library, two newspaper offices, a hospital and more than 1,200 homes. By today’s estimations, the Tulsa Race Massacre left as many as 300 dead, many more injured, and 10,000 homeless.
Du Bois thought he knew why. “The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations,” he said on June 2, 1921. Public displays of Black prosperity and self-reliance were inherently inflammatory to much of white society, Du Bois contended. “They feel their independent position and have boasted that in their community there have been no cases of lynching. With such a state of affairs it took only a spark to start a dangerous fire.”
Nearly 30 years ago, American Experience interviewed Greenwood residents about life in the district and the events of the massacre. Almost all of those residents are now deceased, but we are privileged to have captured their memories both of the vitality of their old neighborhood and of the violence of its destruction. We’ve paired excerpts from those interviews with archival images of Greenwood before and during the massacre. We then returned to those same sites to see what they look like today, and spoke with current community members about Greenwood in 2021.
Despite the massacre’s devastation, Greenwood’s residents rebuilt; in fact, the district’s economic heyday followed in the 1930s and 40s. But in the latter half of the 20th century, Tulsa city planners used eminent domain to seize and demolish much of the district’s commercial center—what one of today’s community members refers to as “the second destruction of Greenwood.”
Though 100 years have passed since the massacre, its effects live on in the landscape. By many measures, the district today is far poorer than other parts of Tulsa, and none of the massacre’s survivors or their descendants have ever received any compensation for physical damages or their emotional distress. Du Bois described this present-day state of affairs more than a century ago. “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins,” he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.”
A note on language: When the interviews with Greenwood residents were conducted in 1993, the race massacre was still called a race riot. We have also lightly edited and condensed all interviews for clarity.
Greenwood Avenue Looking North From Archer Street
James Homer Johnson: What Greenwood [Avenue] meant to the Black community was the very center of activity, commercial, social, religious. It was the whole ball of wax. They had a tremendous amount of employment in the Black community through these businesses. Every conceivable type of business was on Greenwood. You had dance halls; you had taverns, barber shops, beauty shops, restaurants, jewelers. So any time you wanted to find out what was going on or who was in Tulsa all you had to do was be on Greenwood Thursday night through Saturday night.
Mabel Rice: You got all dressed up and you were walking up and down Greenwood, and everybody else was walking up and down Greenwood or sitting along the sides at different businesses, pool halls. The young guys stood in front of the pool hall to see pretty women walk by.
Victor Luckerson, journalist: Greenwood Avenue is where you have the last few Black-owned businesses now. When you go to Archer street, there's a gelato shop, there’s a bookstore. There is a WeWork-type [coworking] space and there's an ad agency. There is a lot of new business emerging, but I don’t think they’re necessarily in the spirit of Black-owned community businesses, which is what the earlier Greenwood was defined by.
Intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street
Mabel B. Little: [Tulsa] was so segregated you couldn’t buy things like hats. You go into a store and buy a hat, first thing the clerk would try it on her head and ask you what you think about it. [Once] my husband was with me and I wanted to buy a hat, and she says ‘But you can’t try it on. Do you want it?’ I says ‘no if I can’t try the hat on I don’t want it.’ ‘Well you can’t try it on in here,’ she said. So we walked out. And that’s why the Black people began to think for themselves. We had money but we were not able to go and purchase anything so it helped us to go into business for our own selves.
Dr. Charles Bate: [Y]ou could get anything you needed, it was there. I like to tell the story of someone coming to my [doctor’s] office paying two dollars, and my going down to the Busy Bee Cafe and eating and paying 90 cents. And then the girl at Busy Bee going over to McGowan’s to buy some hose. McGowan was going to buy his prescription at the pharmacy. Bowser going down to McKay’s and getting his pants pressed. The man from there going over to the Black dentist, all within a one and a half block area. A dollar perhaps turned over 12 or 13 times.
Victor Luckerson: At the corner of Greenwood and Archer there are still two historic buildings that are not pre-massacre but they were erected some time during the peak era of Greenwood and refurbished circa 1980. In those two buildings there’s a mix of Black- and white-owned businesses. Some of them have been there for decades, some of them are brand new.
Hannibal B. Johnson, historian: The world hasn't been static since 1921. A lot of things have changed socially, politically and economically. The community is an integrated community. Much of the land does not belong to Black folks. All kinds of folks are here with different interests—residential, commercial, entertainment, educational, religious and so on. And the trick is figuring out how to make it work and how to preserve what I call the Black Wall Street mindset.
Williams Dreamland Theatre
James Homer Johnson: I didn’t really feel the full effects of segregation because we were living in this self-contained environment where we didn’t have to go outside for anything. We didn’t have to go to the white theater and use the balcony. We didn’t have to worry about anything other than just within this community.
John Hope Franklin: Segregation is not really the proper term to use to describe race relations in Tulsa in this period. The schools were called the Tulsa separate schools and I think that catches the spirit because everything was separate, really separate. Not only were the schools separate, the entertainment was separate. The white movie houses were lily white, completely white, and then there were the two Black movie houses that were completely Black, the Dreamland Theater on one side of what we call Deep Greenwood and the Dixie on the other.
Ed Lucy: On a Saturday, what we used to do as boys, is we would go around and gather pop bottles, and we’d take them to the C&C Grocery Store. Then we’d go to the Dreamland Theatre to see cowboy movies. And usually they’d have a comic, which was about a half an hour long, and then the feature movie was about two hours long, and they might have a third movie. Well, we would go in there, say, about 10 o’clock in the morning, and we wouldn’t get out of there till about 3 o’clock, because we would stay and see them over and over.
Victor Luckerson: An interstate overpass was built through the middle of Greenwood in the 1960s. Across America in the 1960s, to build and expand the interstate system, Black communities would be designated as blighted by federal agencies. That meant ‘we can take whatever we want from it because it's not important, or it's not part of our view of progress.’ So Interstate 244 was built, and then several businesses on Greenwood Avenue were demolished to make room for it.
Regina Goodwin, State Representative: Something called urban removal came through. Others referred to it as urban renewal. Our house was bulldozed, and that space where our house was still remains empty. All the businesses that existed are not there. You don’t see the chili parlor. You don’t see the doctor’s office or the Dreamland Theater. What was there is not there.
Hobart Jarrett: People were going about the business of living. And some of these people were highly respectable, some of them were not highly respectable. But we all sort of blended in together and there was a sense of community. As a child, I knew that this man who ran the barbecue shack was doing it for his living, and I respected him. There were the uppers and the lowers and the middles, and it all just blended in together. I was proud to be a Tulsan. I was proud to grow up on Greenwood.
Mabel Rice: In those days our community was so tight knit it seemed everybody knew everybody and they were looking out for us. All up and down the street there were people that knew who we were, what we were supposed to be doing and what we were not supposed to be doing, and if you were involved in something you weren’t supposed to it would beat you home.
Regina Goodwin: The spirit of Greenwood is alive within the heart and memory of many descendants that still remain. We are committed to making Tulsa better. We are committed to doing right by our ancestors, and that means always talking about reparations and Black-owned businesses, and in unapologetic terms. We should not apologize for talking very specifically about Black ownership and Black folks holding land and having a community that is reflective of their culture, of their strength. That’s reflective of their dreams.
Intersection of South Man and First Street
James Homer Johnson: It was always a hostile relationship between the Black and white community, and part of it was because the Ku Klux Klan was located just west of the Black community, on Main and Eastern. This was about four blocks west of where the primary Black community was located. We had to pass by this to go to places of employment and to go to and from school. There was always a potential for violence there. As kids we had to fight our way to school. Or run.
Rosa B. Skinner: There was this dispute happened on the elevator in one of the big stores downtown, and they accused a negro man about it. The white people threatened to mob him and our men threatened to get them if they did…[Then] blood was running on Greenwood like water.
Hannibal B. Johnson: The community was a robust community leading up to the massacre. It was an insular Black community that existed out of necessity and reflected what I call an economic detour. In other words, people couldn't engage with the mainstream economy. They were shunned and turned away. They created their own ancillary economy in a particular geographic space because of Jim Crow segregation. It was successful because even people who worked outside the community, brought their money back and spent it in the community. But then the community was obliterated, virtually wiped off the face of the map.
Mabel B. Little: We left our home because it was right at the foot of a high hill called the Brickyard Hill, and the machine guns were on top of that hill and they were shooting down over our home. In fact we were fortunate we didn’t get killed because we were just in the midst of where the bullets were coming. So we closed our home and walked several miles. We didn’t get back until the next day and it was three buildings that we lost. They were all paid for; we didn’t owe anyone anything. We had decided to get out of debt and pay cash for everything, and we thought we had it made. After we lost everything we only had fifty dollars in cash money. We had to start all over again.
Rosa B. Skinner: I had some friends that had a baby born the night before the riot started and they lost that baby during the riot trying to keep up with ‘em. They had him in some kind of box like a shoe box and...that baby got away from them during the night.
Vanessa Hall-Harper, City Councilor: Right now, you see all these cranes when you look at the skyline of Tulsa. I see it every time I go to City Hall because our building is glass. You see all the big cranes that it takes to build these new buildings. They're all in north downtown, abutting North Tulsa. Clearly you see development creeping further and further and further north. Ultimately, you're going to gentrify, you're going to put housing and businesses in a place that most African Americans can't afford.
Victor Luckerson: Understanding historical Greenwood as a truly Black space is important. The massacre takes that from the community and also even invites further outside intrusion, because now it's easier to conceptualize as a white space because of what happened.
Rosa B. Skinner: The big old trucks was full of men with them shotguns. I just knew everybody was going to be killed. They was loading us up, taking us to a place and we didn’t know where we was going. [T]hey told us we had to go there ‘cause they was separating the men from the women and children.
Victor Luckerson: Convention Hall became a theater. It was known as the Brady theater for an extremely long time, but Tate Brady, the namesake, was a Ku Klux Klan member. His KKK affiliations came out about seven or eight years ago, publicized heavily in Tulsa and became a national story. That is when the theater was renamed the Tulsa theater.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church
Mabel B. Little: I was president at the Mount Zion Baptist Church and we were having night meetings because we worked in the day. My husband came and announced that there was a race riot that started downtown...The church was destroyed. The beautiful red brick church that we had struggled hard for seven years to build, and they burned that church down because the white people only had frame churches in Tulsa and we had the first red brick church. We never did get anything out of it. No contributions whatsoever. In fact our people didn’t get any support from the city of Tulsa.
Hannibal B. Johnson: Mount Zion was a beautiful new church at the time of the massacre, roughly six weeks old and had been built at a cost—the amount is not certain, but the figure I see most often is $85,000—that was a lot of money in 1921. They had borrowed 50,000 of the $85,000 from a single individual. There were a lot of rumors around town during the chaos and turmoil of the massacre. One was that Mount Zion was being used to house a cache of weapons for the Black community. So when the white mobsters came they went to Mount Zion and torched it. It was totally destroyed. There was only a dirt floor basement left.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: It wasn't a riot. It was a massacre. Back in 1921, they used the fact that it was a riot technically to not pay insurance claims. It was only because of our own strength, of saying ‘no, we're not going anywhere, we’re going to come back and we're going to rebuild.’ But the government did not help with that. The business community did not help with that. It was our own strength and belief in ourselves that rebuilt Greenwood.
North Cincinnati Avenue
Hobart Jarrett: During the riot, my father’s business was burned to the very ground. My father had kept his money in a safe in that store. The only money that my father had [after the massacre] was money that I had saved from little coins that had been given to me from time to time. I had a little Blue Boy bank that stood on the upright piano that we had in our home. The marauders had looted everything. They had gone through every drawer; they had taken everything that they wanted. But they had missed seeing that Blue Boy bank. I had 13 dollars, I think it was something like 13 dollars and 30 cents, and that was my father’s capital. From that amount of money we had to do whatever had to be done to maintain ourselves.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: I absolutely see the effects of the remnants of the massacre. Community and what constitutes community—businesses, homes, homeownership—is severely lacking in Greenwood. Every day I'm reminded of a quote by one of the leaders who was involved with the Tulsa chamber in 1921: ‘Greenwood can never come again. It can never be what it once was.’
North Detroit Avenue
George Monroe: I remember my mother putting us, my sisters and my brother, under the bed. I remember the white people coming into our house with torches, setting the curtains on fire and setting our house on fire. One stepped on my finger while I was under the bed and my sister put her hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming.
Rosa B. Skinner: They burned every one down on this side of me and every one down on that side except my house and another house. They were left side by side, just them two.
Hobart Jarrett: My great-grandmother, my uncles and aunts and cousins and all of us were going away from our homes to escape whatever was going to happen. Uncle Bill, my step-grandfather, refused to budge. He had a rifle and a shotgun which he kept with him as he sat on his porch. The houses across the street from us were all burned all the way. Uncle Bill’s home and our home were not burned. The marauders came in, I know that. I remember vividly going into my grandmother’s and Uncle Bill’s home after we had returned. This was the first time I ever heard the word urination. Somebody had urinated on my grandmother’s rug, near her fine phonograph. And Uncle Bill apparently had been unable to stop that, but he did stop the houses from being burned.
Victor Luckerson: [Oklahoma State University] Tulsa now owns a lot of the property in Greenwood. In between the massacre and when OSU had it, this would have been very densely populated with houses that were rebuilt after the massacre. But North Detroit was cleared out during urban renewal. It's hard to know what happened to a space when it's been cleared out. And I would imagine that once the space is cleared out, then a lot of the political will to protect it disappears. It's easier to claim a space after it's been emptied.
Williams Dreamland Theatre
James Homer Johnson: [T]he Black community was sacked. A complete community was burned to the ground. There was looting that took place, a tremendous amount of looting. Two and three years after the riot, Black people started to recover some of their goods, furniture and furs and other properties that were in the homes of some white people. So it was about economics. Blacks were affluent.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: Even though we rebuilt, then came what I call the second destruction, which started with eminent domain, urban removal and building a highway through the community. Even though that was a federal project, local government officials, city and state had to sign off on it for that to happen.
North Greenwood Avenue
John Hope Franklin: One had the feeling that one was really reliving the experiences of the riot as one moved about the community and looked at all of the devastation. I think the thing that it reminded me of more than anything else is that first time I went to Europe in 1951, which was about five, six years after the war. I saw the same kind of remnants of devastation.
James Homer Johnson: We were survivors. This hope that we had, the reason we came to Oklahoma, that we were going to establish the ability for a man to develop to his full potential—I think that this is a part of the thing that has sustained Black people in Oklahoma.
Victor Luckerson: The first time I visited Greenwood is my most vivid memory of it. I went for the anniversary of the massacre in 2018. I had never been in Greenwood but had read a lot about it. I had this vision of the grandeur of Black Wall Street. When you get there, it's very striking how small it is. I’d learned about all these hundreds of businesses and it was shocking to see two small buildings and the [Oklahoma] Eagle [newspaper] office. Then right next to Greenwood is the Tulsa Drillers, a minor league baseball team. They moved there about 10 years ago to some opposition from the Black community. The day I went was the anniversary of the massacre, May 31, 2018. There was also a Drillers game happening. And so there was a vigil of 20 to 30 people for the massacre victims, this guy recited a poem, we had a moment of silence, et cetera. But there were literally hundreds, maybe a thousand people going to the Drillers stadium around us. That was what Greenwood was that night—it was a night to celebrate the Drillers and to remember the massacre victims.
Regina Goodwin: When I hear white folks say, ‘Hey, just forget about it. It was 100 years ago. Get over it’... You can’t get over what has not been repaired. It’s difficult to get over what continues to be an open sore. Every day you drive down Greenwood, and when you see missing buildings, when you see a baseball stadium, when you see 200 acres that are now taken up by [Oklahoma State University] Tulsa, these are the psychic scars you see.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: With the 100th anniversary we're going to be on a worldwide stage. What I want to know is okay, on June 2, 2021, now what? That's when the world needs to come back and see what the city is talking about doing then.
Regina Goodwin is a State Representative who was raised in Greenwood. Her great grandfather was a prominent businessman at the time of the massacre.
Vanessa Hall-Harper is a Tulsa native and City Councilor representing the Greenwood district.
Hannibal Johnson is an historian and the author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.
Victor Luckerson is a journalist working on a book about the Greenwood district and a biweekly newsletter about neglected Black history called "Run It Back."
Additional archival research by Veronica Mendez.