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Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As one of the most successful and wealthiest African American communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, it was popularly known as America's "Black Wall Street" until the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The riot was one of the most devastating race riots in history, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.
Within five years after the riot, surviving residents who chose to remain in Tulsa rebuilt much of the district. They accomplished this despite the opposition of many white Tulsa political and business leaders. It resumed being a vital black community until segregation was overturned by the Federal Government during the 1950s and 1960s. Desegregation encouraged blacks to live and shop elsewhere in the city, causing Greenwood to lose much of its original vitality. Since then, city leaders have attempted to encourage other economic development activity nearby.
Many black Americans moved to Oklahoma in the years before and after 1907, which is the year Oklahoma became a state. Oklahoma represented change and provided a chance for black Americans to get away from slavery and the harsh racism of their previous homes. Most of them traveled from other states in the south where racism was very prevalent, and Oklahoma offered hope and provided all people with a chance to start over. They traveled to Oklahoma by wagons, horses, trains, and even on foot.
Many of the black Americans who traveled to Oklahoma had ancestors who could be traced back to Oklahoma. A lot of the settlers were relatives of black American slaves who had traveled on foot with the Five Civilized Tribes along the Trail of Tears. Others were the descendants of runaway slaves who had fled to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in an effort to escape lives of oppression. The Emancipation Proclamation freed all of these former slaves in 1863. Many who had been owned by the Creeks and Seminoles were adopted into those tribes. They were thus able to live freely in the Oklahoma Territory.
When Tulsa became a booming and rather well noted town in the United States, the residents and government attempted to leave out important aspects of the city. Many people considered Tulsa to be two separate cities rather than one city of united communities. The white residents of Tulsa referred to the area north of the Frisco railroad tracks as “Little Africa” and other derogatory names. This community later acquired the name Greenwood and by 1921 it was home to about 10,000 black American men, women, and children.
Greenwood was centered on a street known as Greenwood Avenue. This street was important because it ran north for over a mile from the Frisco Railroad yards, and it was one of the few streets that did not cross through both black and white neighborhoods. The citizens of Greenwood took pride in this fact because it was something they had all to themselves and did not have to share with the white community of Tulsa. Greenwood Avenue was home to the black American commercial district with many red brick buildings. These buildings belonged to black Americans and they were thriving businesses, including grocery stores, banks, libraries, and much more. Greenwood was one of the most affluent communities and it became known as “Black Wall Street.”
During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood, which came to be known as "the Negro Wall Street" (now commonly referred to as "the Black Wall Street"). The area was home to several prominent black businessmen, many of them multimillionaires. Greenwood boasted a variety of thriving businesses that were very successful up until the Tulsa Race Riot. Not only did black Americans want to contribute to the success of their own shops, but also the racial segregation laws prevented them from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood. Following the riots, the area was rebuilt and thrived until the 1960s when desegregation allowed blacks to shop in areas that were restricted before.
Detroit Avenue, along the edge of Standpipe Hill, contained a number of higher-end houses belonging to doctors, lawyers and business owners. Also, the buildings on Greenwood Avenue housed the offices of almost all of Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors, doctors, and other professionals. In Tulsa at the time of the riot, there were fifteen well-known black American physicians, one of whom, Dr. A.C. Jackson, was considered the “most able Negro surgeon in America” by one of the Mayo brothers. Dr. Jackson was shot to death as he left his house during the riot. Greenwood published two newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun, which covered not only Tulsa, but also state and national news and elections. Buildings housing the two papers were destroyed during the riot.
Greenwood was a very religiously active community. At the time of the riot there were more than a dozen black American churches and many Christian youth organizations and religious societies.
In northeastern Oklahoma, as elsewhere in America, the prosperity of minorities emerged amidst racial and political tension. The Ku Klux Klan made its first major appearance in Oklahoma shortly before the worst race riot in history. It is estimated that there were about 3,200 members of the Klan in Tulsa in 1921.
Around the start of the 20th century O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American land-owner from Arkansas, traversed the United States to participate in the Oklahoma Land run of 1889. The young entrepreneur had just resigned from a presidential appointment under president Grover Cleveland in order to strike out on his own."
In 1906, Gurley moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he purchased 40 acres of land which was "only to be sold to colored". Black ownership was unheard of at that time.
Among Gurley's first businesses was a rooming house which was located on a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. This road was given the name Greenwood Avenue, named for a city in Mississippi. The area became very popular among African American migrants fleeing the oppression in Mississippi. They would find refuge in Gurley's building, as the racial persecution from the south was non-existent on Greenwood Avenue.
In addition to his rooming house, Gurley built three two-story buildings and five residences and bought an 80-acre (320,000 m2) farm in Rogers County. Gurley also founded what is today Vernon AME Church.
This implementation of "colored" segregation set the Greenwood boundaries of separateness that exist to this day: Pine Street to the North, Archer Street and the Frisco tracks to the South, Cincinnati Street on the West, and Lansing Street on the East. The segregation is pronounced in subtle landmarks. South of Archer, Greenwood Avenue does not exist in white neighborhoods.
Another African American entrepreneur, J.B. Stradford, arrived in Tulsa in 1899. He believed that black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, worked together and supported each other's businesses. He bought large tracts of real estate in the northeastern part of Tulsa, which he had subdivided and sold exclusively to other African Americans. Gurley and a number of other blacks soon followed suit. Stradford later built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood, where blacks could enjoy the amenities of the downtown hotels who served only whites. It was said to be the largest black-owned hotel in the United States.
Gurley's prominence and wealth were short lived. In a matter of moments, he lost everything. During the race war, The Gurley Hotel at 112 N. Greenwood, the street’s first commercial enterprise, valued at $55,000, was lost, and with it Brunswick Billiard Parlor and Dock Eastmand & Hughes Cafe. Gurley also owned a two-story building at 119 N. Greenwood. It housed Carter’s Barbershop, Hardy Rooms, a pool hall, and cigar store. All were reduced to ruins. By his account and court records, he lost nearly $200,000 in the 1921 race war.
Because of his leadership role in creating this self-sustaining exclusive black "enclave", it had been falsely rumored that Gurley was lynched by a white mob and buried in an unmarked grave. However, according to the memoirs of Greenwood pioneer, B.C. Franklin, Gurley exiled himself to California. The founder of the most successful African American community of his time vanished from the history books and drifted into obscurity. He is now being honored in a 2008 documentary film called, Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.
The nation's worst act of American terrorism and racial violence, the Tulsa Race Riot, occurred there in late May and early June 1921, when 35 square blocks of homes and businesses were torched by mobs of angry whites.
The riot began because of the alleged assault of a white elevator operator, 17-year old Sarah Page, by an African American shoeshiner, 19-year old Dick Rowland (the case against Mr. Rowland was eventually dismissed). The Tulsa Tribune got word of the incident and chose to publish the story in the paper on May 31, 1921. Shortly after the newspaper article surfaced, there was news that a white lynch mob was going to take matters into its own hands and kill Dick Rowland.
A group of armed white men congregated outside the jail and, subsequently, a group of African American men joined the assembled crowd in order to protect Dick Rowland. There was an argument in which a white man tried to take a gun from a black man, and the gun fired a bullet up into the sky. This incident promoted many others to fire their guns, and the violence erupted on the evening of May 31, 1921. Whites flooded into the Greenwood district and destroyed the businesses and homes of African American residents. No one was exempt from the violence of the white mobs; men, women, and even children were killed by the mobs.
Troops were eventually deployed on the afternoon of June 1, but by that time there was not much left of the once thriving Greenwood district. Over 600 successful businesses were lost. Among these were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half-dozen private airplanes and even a bus system. Note—It was a time when the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, yet six blacks owned their own planes.
It was suspected by many blacks that the entire thing was planned because many white men, women and children stood on the borders of the city and watched as blacks were shot, burned and lynched. In addition, some of the black-owned airplanes were stolen by the white mob and used to throw cocktail bombs & dynamite sticks from the sky. Property damage totaled $1.5 million (1921). Although the official death toll claimed that 26 blacks and 13 whites died during the fighting, most estimates are considerably higher. At the time of the riot, the American Red Cross estimated that over 300 persons were killed. The Red Cross also listed 8,624 persons in need of assistance, in excess of 1,000 homes and businesses destroyed, and the delivery of several stillborn infants.
The community mobilized its resources and rebuilt the Greenwood area within five years of the Tulsa Race Riot and the neighborhood was a hotbed of jazz and blues in the 1920s. However, the neighborhood fell prey to an economic and population drain in the 1960s, and much of the area was leveled during urban renewal in the early 1970s to make way for a highway loop around the downtown district. Several blocks around the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street were saved from demolition and have been restored, forming part of the Greenwood Historical District.
The Greenwood Historical District comprises an area bounded by the Crosstown Freeway (I-244) To the North, Elgin Avenue on the west, Greenwood Avenue to the East and the Frisco tracks to the South.
Revitalization and preservation efforts in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in tourism initiatives and memorials. John Hope Franklin Greenwood Reconciliation Park and the Greenwood Cultural Center honor the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot, although the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce plans a larger museum to be built with participation from the National Park Service.
In 2008, Tulsa announced that it sought to move the city's minor league baseball team, the Tulsa Drillers, to a new stadium, now known as ONEOK Field to be constructed in the Greenwood District. The proposed development includes a hotel, baseball stadium, and an expanded mixed-use district. Along with the new stadium, there will be extra development for the city blocks that surround the stadium. This project will bring Greenwood Historical District out front and center and attract not only tourists but also Tulsa residents to North Tulsa.
The Greenwood Cultural Center, dedicated on October 22, 1995, was created as a tribute to Greenwood’s history and as a symbol of hope for the community’s future. The center has a museum, an African American art gallery, a large banquet hall, and housed the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame until 2007. The total cost of the center was almost $3 million. The cultural center is a very important part of the reconstruction and unity of the Greenwood Historical District.
The Greenwood Cultural Center sponsors and promotes education and cultural events preserving African American heritage. It also provides positive images of North Tulsa to the community, attracting a wide variety of visitors, not only to the center itself, but also to the city of Tulsa as a whole.
In 2011, the Greenwood Cultural Center lost 100% of its funding from the State of Oklahoma. As a result, the center may be forced to close its doors. A fundraising campaign is now underway to try to raise private funds to keep the educational and cultural facility open.