A memorial remembering Black Wall Street

Tulsa Race Massacre: The Cultural Significance of Black Wall Street

The Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was a place where African-Americans of the early 20th century were thriving due to the establishment of businesses in the district. As a result, the Greenwood District would be given the nickname ‘Black Wall Street’. Unfortunately, this success would not last, with a day of tragedy being brought upon them in May 1921, with a crowd of white residents of Tulsa attacking those of the Greenwood district.

An image depicting Black Americans marching down a bustling Greenwood district in Tulsa. (Source: Bloomberg Philanthropies))
Tulsa’s Greenwood district in the early 1920s. (Source: Bloomberg Philanthropies)

Though this event is an extreme example of racialized violence in America, the Tulsa Race Massacre has not been highlighted in history as much as it should. This article will discuss the history of Black Wall Street, as well as the motives behind the massacre and its significance in anthropology.

The Establishment of Black Wall Street

O.W. Gurley can be credited as the founder of the Greenwood district. A successful entrepreneur, “Gurley initially established himself roughly 80 miles west of Tulsa, where he claimed a plot of land, became principal of the local school and ran a successful general store for more than a decade.” (CNBC)

 

An image depicting O.W. Gurley, founder of Black Wall Street, in 1921 (Source: BlackPast)
O.W. Gurley in 1921 (Source: BlackPast)

Gurley would go on to purchase 40 acres of land in 1905, with the aspiration of Black Americans to prosper. With this ambition, he would help the Black community of Tulsa to prosper.

Business is Booming

Greenwood would soon become a success, with the growth of residential housing and commerce. It became a place where black Americans found success without the shackles of oppression holding them back. Gurley’s belief in the success of Greenwood would prove true:

Between 1910 and 1920, Tulsa’s population nearly quadrupled to more than 72,000 and the Black population rose from below 2,000 to almost 9,000.

Antoine Gara

J.C. Stradford, also an entrepreneur, would join forces with Gurley to help expand the Greenwood district. He would go on to build the Stratford Hotel, which would be known as:

 At the time, it was the largest black-owned hotel in America with 54 suites, a gambling hall, a dining room, a saloon and a pool hall. Stradford had built his hotel to be equal in luxury to the finest lodgings in white Tulsa, and it stood as the big monument to Greenwood’s rising success, valued at $75,000 (or about $2.5 million today).  

Antoine Gara

Greenwood would become a place of economic promise. During the time of Jim Crow laws, Greenwood was what black Americans needed in order to survive a state where segregation was prominent.

The centre of Black Wall Street in its prime [Source: America in Color: The 1920s, Smithsonian].
Black Wall Street in its prime [Source: America in Color: The 1920s, Smithsonian].

The Downfall of Greenwood

Greenwood would continue to thrive despite the hardships of World War One. Alas, racism was something that could not be avoided at the time, especially with Jim Crow laws in full effect. To understand why the Tulsa Race Massacre happened, we must look at the basis of Jim Crow Laws and how they were exercised in that period of time.

 

A sign seen during the era of Jim Crow laws, saying "Coloured waiting room"
An example of how segregation was enforced by Jim Crow Laws (Source: National Geographic)

What are Jim Crow Laws?

Originating in 1877, Jim Crow laws were a means of racial segregation after emancipation. Legislation was passed, particularly in Southern states, with separate public places for whites and people of colour. The concept of Jim Crow Laws allowed for the control of Black Americans without the use of slavery.

In legality, these laws present themselves in a ‘separate but equal’ concept (Jim Crow Laws). This was far from the truth in practice. Black Americans were denied things like the right to vote and ownership of property. White Americans were determined to enforce the law themselves, with white supremacy groups punishing black people for any mistake made, no matter the size. The more black people tried to resist, the more intense the consequences became, ranging from jail time to lynching.

A Ticking Time Bomb

Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, center, appeared before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee at the U.S. Capitol last week. (Source: Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times)
Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, center, appeared before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee at the U.S. Capitol last week. (Source: Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times)
Smoke emerges from the Greenwood district (Source: THE UNIVERSITY OF TULSA, MCFARLIN LIBRARY ARCHIVES)
Smoke emerges from the Greenwood district (Source: THE UNIVERSITY OF TULSA, MCFARLIN LIBRARY ARCHIVES)

 

An article written in the Tulsa Tribune on May 31, 1921, with the title 'Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator,' which is said to have incited the riot (Source: Wikipedia)
An article written in the Tulsa Tribune on May 31, 1921, which is said to have incited the riot (Source: Wikipedia)

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