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Greenwood Ave.

Greenwood District, circa 1917
(21516.91.B, Mary E. Jones Parrish Collection, OHS).

Greenwood was a district in Tulsa which was organized in 1906 following Booker T. Washington’s 1905 tour of Arkansas, Indian Territory and Oklahoma. It was a namesake of the Greenwood District that Washington had established as his own demonstration in Tuskegee, Alabama, five years earlier. Greenwood became so prosperous that it came to be known as “the Negro Wall Street” (now commonly referred to as “the Black Wall Street”).[40] Black Americans had created their own businesses and services in this enclave, including several grocers, two newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs, and numerous churches. Black professionals, including doctors, dentists, lawyers, and clergy, served their peers. Most black people lived together in the district, and during his trip to Tulsa in 1905, Washington encouraged the co-operation, economic independence and excellence being demonstrated there. Greenwood residents selected their own leaders and raised capital there to support economic growth. In the surrounding areas of northeastern Oklahoma, they also enjoyed relative prosperity and participated in the oil boom.

Black Wall Street in flames, June 1, 1921

Tulsa Race Massacre

In the spring of 1921 underlying social and economic tension in Tulsa sparked the worst racial violence in American history. As many as three hundred people lost their lives. Property damage ran into the millions of dollars. The Greenwood District, the thirty-five-square-block-area that comprised the city’s entire African American community, lay in ruins. Tulsa’s African Americans ultimately turned tragedy into triumph. They rebuilt the ravaged Greenwood District, which by 1942 boasted 242 black-owned and black-operated business establishments.  The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. About 10,000 black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019). Many survivors left Tulsa, while black and white residents who stayed in the city kept silent about the terror, violence, and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.