By Jeffrey L. Boney, Pittsburgh Courier
Black Wall Street was the name given to Greenwood Avenue, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Starting in 1910, this 35 square block area was both admired and envied by individuals, far and wide, because of the continuous circulation of the Black dollar within the Black community. Their commitment to supporting their own community helped them produce a number of prosperous and wealthy Black families, as well as a vibrant African American community. The thing that made Black Wall Street so historic and powerful, is the fact the Black dollar circulated anywhere from 36 to 1000 times in the African American community; sometimes taking an entire year before any money even left the African American community.
By 1921, the population of Black Wall Street had reached 11,000 and the community had its own bus line, 13 churches, four hotels, three drug stores, two high schools, two theaters, two newspapers, one hospital and a public library. In addition to that, they built nearly 200 two- and three-story brick commercial buildings that housed professional offices for lawyers, doctors and dentists, clothing stores, grocery stores, nightclubs, restaurants and motels. Black Wall Street had become a strong commercial community.
Because African Americans invested their own dollars back into their own community, it produced a sense of accomplishment, pride and self-sufficiency. African Americans had been subjected to segregationist policies during the early 1900’s, therefore Black people were forced to live amongst each other, shop and spend money with one another. Since African Americans could not live amongst Whites or patronize their businesses in Tulsa, there was a forced interaction that caused Black people to purposefully support one another, which caused Black Wall Street to thrive to the point where Blacks were able to develop their own separate and self-sufficient business community.
Unfortunately, because of their continuous success and strength, Black Wall Street became the envy of America—particularly amongst Whites. Sadly, the worst act of racial violence in American history occurred on June 1, 1921, when Black Wall Street was burned to the ground by a mob of angry Whites; this after local newspaper reports wrongly claimed that a Black shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old White girl named Sarah Page, who was working as the elevator operator in the Drexel building on May 30, 1921.
According to the most accepted accounts, Rowland attempted to enter the elevator and tripped. While falling, Rowland allegedly latched on Page’s arm, which caused her to scream. A White clerk in a first-floor store called police to report seeing Rowland flee from the elevator and the building and went on to report the incident as an attempted assault. Rowland was arrested the next day, on May 31, 1921 and a White lynch mob decided they would take matters in their own hands and tried to kill Rowland. These actions, and the Black community’s attempt to protect Rowland, led to one of the most intentional genocides of Black people in American history.
The African American community of Black Wall Street was attacked and during the night and day of the assault, deputized Whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 Black citizens of Tulsa who were only released if a White employer or White citizen vouched for them. Nearly ten-thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921. The case against Rowland was eventually dismissed and Page did not want to proceed with pressing charges and decided not to prosecute the case.
After the Tulsa riot, White inhabitants tried to buy the property from African Americans and force them out of town. No bank or lending institution would make loans to African American residents from Black Wall Street and the city of Tulsa refused to allow anybody from the outside to offer them any assistance. Seeking to rebuild and restore their once prosperous neighborhood, many of the owners refused to sell and most of the buildings along the first block of Greenwood Avenue were rebuilt within one year.
What can be done today?
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