400 Year Blog #23 – Greenwood: The Ugly Paradox of Success

Posted in: Leader's Blog

After the Civil War, some Black entrepreneurs overcame Jim Crow laws and white supremacy in their pursuit of “the American Dream.”  In 1900, two decades after his Tuskegee Institute began training Black workers, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League. Washington counseled that, “economic independence is the foundation of political independence…. Land ownership is the foundation of all wealth.”

Maybe that’s why developers E. P. McCabe and O. W. Gurley encouraged their fellow African Americans to buy land in Oklahoma, flush with oil money and economic opportunity. Black families settled in the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, known as “the Black Wall Street” with stores, hotels, churches, and bustling with attorneys, real-estate agents, dentists and doctors. Although the Oklahoma Senate’s very first bill mandated segregation on urban streetcars – reminding all that racism was alive and well – few expected the nightmare soon to come.

In 1921 a Black teenager named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman. The press sensationalized this accusation, promoting the myth of Black sexual predators and releasing the pent-up resentment of whites toward “uppity Blacks.”  Angry mobs gathered at the courthouse and shots were fired. Soon, according to the New York Times, “Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars, bristling with guns, swept through your city, their occupants firing at will.'”

A 30-block area with over 1000 businesses and homes was destroyed in 16 hours. Private planes dropped firebombs, and the Times reported that Black people fleeing burning houses were shot. Estimates of Black citizens killed range from 100-300. 800 were wounded and 9000 people became homeless. No whites were convicted, but 12 Black residents were indicted for “inciting a riot.”

After 80 years of silence and denial, the Oklahoma legislature offered too little, too late: 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents; promises of economic development; a memorial to those who died; and a park honoring Tulsa native and historian John Hope Franklin. Franklin’s father, Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer, survived the horror.  Afterwards he worked to defend the rights of survivors who simply were trying to live “the American dream.” Sadly, as we’ll explore next week, this type of violence was less a paradox and more of a pattern.

  • Lesson #103: Few Black leaders were as successful as Booker T. Washington in encouraging Black entrepreneurship.

  • Lesson #104: Blacks who successfully contributed to American economic development were often seen by whites not as patriotic, but as dangerous.

  • Lesson #105: The depth of racism was made clear when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and the very first bill passed by its Senate was to enforce segregation.

  • Lesson #106: Racist paranoia about protecting white women from Black predators often sparked racist domestic terrorism.

  • Lesson #107: Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park has three major elements… larger-than-life bronze sculptures representing “hostility” (a white man armed for assault?), “humiliation” (a Black man with his hands raised in surrender), and “hope”  (a white director of the Red Cross holding a black baby).

  • Lesson #108: The “Greenwood riot” was appropriately renamed by officials the “Greenwood massacre.”
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