Let’s Raise a Glass to America’s Black Wall Street
Before integration, in cities like Durham, the only place that an African American could bank with was the black-owned bank that was providing loans and boosting black businesses. With the Civil Rights Movement, white-owned banks were forced to desegregate and the money that once flowed into black banks ended up on the white Wall Street. The money travelled further away from the communities, and once the gates of integration were open in America, black wealth began to hemorrhage, fast.
“We started to lose a lot of our businesses and support for our businesses,” president of the National Bankers Association, Michael Grant, told The Atlantic. “That was the toxic side of integration.”
Our final stop is in Tulsa, and it’s bittersweet. During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa is flourishing. Its Greenwood neighbourhood is a place of limitless opportunities, where the dance halls run all-night, black-owned boutiques are opening up and down the main thoroughfares and a high rate of black home ownership sets it apart from other American towns. Segregation has created a need for black individuals to produce and supply the goods they aren’t allowed to buy over on the white side of town. The result is a self-sufficient economy for the suburb, making the most of the divide to help Greenwood small businesses grow.
Here’s a shot of John Wesley Williams and his wife, Loula Cotten Williams. “John was an engineer for Thompson Ice Cream Company,” says the Tulsa Historical Society, and “Loula was a teacher in Fisher. The family was the owner of Dreamland Theatre”:
By 1921, the Greenwood neighbourhood, had came to be known locally as “the Negro Wall Street” (now referred to as “the Black Wall Street”). The buildings on Greenwood Avenue housed the offices of almost all of Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors, doctors, journalists and other professionals. Records at this time count approximately 600 black-owned businesses, 30 grocery shops, two movie theatres, six private airplanes, a bank, a hospital, and a school system.
Then, in the span of a night and a day, that all changed one Spring in 1921 with the Tulsa Race Riot.
It began with the arrest of a young black man, who was temporarily arrested for the believed assault of a white elevator operator named Sarah Page while on duty. Today, most evidence leans towards a case in which Rowland simply tripped over Page while in the elevator. Regardless, something wicked was unclenched that day in Tulsa.
The unfurling of the Riot — which was really more of a massacre, as the word ‘riot’ implies a more level playing-field between opposing parties — reads like a textbook case of racist, sheeple hysteria. First, the white-owned Tulsa Tribune broke the story. That led to mobs congregating in front of the Court House were Rowland was held, which led to a crowd of about 75 black citizens (many WWI veterans) coming to protect Rowland. Soon there were thousands of furious whites before them.
By 11pm, the Oklahoma National Guard was called in to officially “detain” black residents. Every single business was burnt to the ground, and 9,000 citizens were left homeless in the winter. It was the biggest riot America ever saw; total devastation of a vital community at the hands of a racist mob.
In the midst of such violence, there were instances of camaraderie and community strength; a number of white residents, such as the Zarrow family (below), hid black citizens in their homes and stores, and the Red Cross was invaluable in providing aid. But recovery wasn’t easy. The financial loss to the black community equalled to billions of dollars today. Nor was the city ever quite the same again; ugly memories were swept under the carpet.
Even though Greenwood rebuilt itself, and while Durham and Richmond continued to thrive into the 30s and 40s, Black Wall Street would soon become a forgotten chapter in history. This rare footage shot by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones, documented African-American life, culture, and success in Oklahoma a few years after the Tulsa Race Riots. His films demonstrate the nuance and diversity of the Black community during this period.
Desegregation played a curious role in its decline. When African Americans were allowed to shop in other (white) neighbourhoods, they often did, and once that captive market was dispersed into the broader market, it was the beginning of the fall. In the 1960s, the government’s urban renewal efforts, contributed to the further decline of these communities, arguably inflicting more permanent damage than any race riots.
This is a history that has not been recaptured in a format that’s accessible to most Americans. Digging up these lesser-known pockets of history are vital to better understanding how Black Wall Street disappeared and why. These are complex, difficult discussions, however if we’re going to look to a better future, we must also remember the past– the good and the bad– and talk about it. And most of all: be inspired by it. Because is this not the ultimate American story? These pioneering entrepreneurs of Black Wall Street– barely out of slavery, with all the odds against them– who built successful companies and businesses from nothing– are these not the ultimate heroes for any young and ambitious individual striving for success? Because if they could do it…heck. Budding entrepreneurs, past, current and future captains of industry, let’s raise a glass to America’s Black Wall Street.