'Black Wall Street in flames': The thriving community destroyed in the Tulsa race riots

A photograph showing flames across the Greenwood section of Tulsa
Flames across the Greenwood section of Tulsa (Colourised) | Public Domain | Wikipedia

Sky HISTORY is committed to bringing to the fore diverse stories. Every Sunday this October, the channel will showcase programmes engaging with different stories about Black History including Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre takes an in-depth look at the tragic events of a century ago. Available On Demand with Sky History.

One hundred years have passed since the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event described as one of the most ‘horrific acts of racial violence, and domestic terrorism, ever committed on American soil’. A white mob burned the thriving black community of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, otherwise known as ‘Black Wall Street’, to the ground.

The shocking events of the night of May 31, 1921, were then airbrushed from the history books, swept under the carpet and all but forgotten. A century later we take a look back at the self-sustaining community that had grown to become the wealthiest black enclave in America at that time and discover the extent of what was lost on that fateful summers night.

The birth of Greenwood

Black communities began cropping up across America in the years and decades after the American Civil War with many being established on former Native American territories. Thanks to an oil boom, Oklahoma was flourishing by the turn of the 20th century. Many black settlers, including former slaves, flocked to the promising area in the hope of claiming some land that was now readily available.

Two such people were wealthy black landowner O. W. Gurley from Arkansas and black entrepreneur and businessman J. B. Stradford from St. Louis. Gurley moved to Tulsa in 1906 and purchased the 40 acres of land that was to become Greenwood. His first building on the property was a rooming house, designed to become a safe haven for those fleeing the racial persecution of the Deep South.

More construction followed as Greenwood began expanding its borders. Enforced racial segregation under Jim Crow laws set the boundaries for the fledgling community, quite literally blacks on one side, whites on the other.

J.B. Stradford then built the 54-room Stradford Hotel in Greenwood, which grew to become the largest black-owned hotel in the entire United States. Boasting dining and gambling halls as well as a saloon, the hotel offered blacks the kinds of services and amenities not available to them from other nearby hotels. Due to the segregation laws, black people were forbidden from patronising many white-owned establishments. These laws drove the growth of Greenwood as black people were forced to develop their own community to escape the prejudices surrounding them.

Stradford and Gurley believed that blacks needed to support each other if they were to prosper economically. Quite frankly the vision for Greenwood was to be a place for black people created by black people. ‘It was an economy born of necessity,’ said historian Hannibal B. Johnson. ‘It wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jim Crow segregation and the inability of Black folks to participate to a substantial degree in the larger white-dominated economy.’

Gurley began loaning money to other black entrepreneurs who wished to start a business in Greenwood. This provided them with an opportunity that was often denied by white-owned banks.

It wasn’t long before Greenwood was attracting black folk from around the country who began settling down to build something of their own. The vibrant and bustling district soon boasted a 750 seat-movie theatre called the Dreamland Theatre as well as a church, two schools, a hospital, a doctor, a dentist, a public library, two newspapers, a law firm and a multitude of small enterprises from beauty parlours and barbers to restaurants and sweet shops.

As the black community grew larger and stronger so did its wealth and prosperity as money circulated within the local black businesses. Greenwood soon garnered the nickname ‘Black Wall Street’ and both Stradford and Gurley had fortunes valued in the millions of dollars in today’s world. The thriving community of commerce grew to a population of around 10,000 residents that stretched across various streets and neighbourhoods some 35 blocks large.

Sadly, the prosperity of Black Wall Street was not to last and what took decades to build was torn down in just 24 hours. By 1921, white communities around Greenwood had become resentful and unwelcoming of its success and with racial violence in the country on the rise, it all culminated in a night of terror on May 31, 1921.

The tragic events of the Tulsa Race Massacre were kick-started the day before when a young black man called Dick Rowland rode a lift with a young white woman called Sarah Page. No one knows what happened next but she ended up leaving the elevator screaming and rumours soon spread of an alleged sexual assault.

Rowland was arrested the next day and a large crowd of whites soon gathered outside the courthouse. Black men from Greenwood showed up en masse in the hope of preventing Rowland from being lynched. After an armed confrontation, the outnumbered Greenwood residents retreated to their home district. That night, a white mob descended upon Black Wall Street as a night of violence and murder ensued. Planes were even said to have flown above Greenwood, dropping firebombs from above.

By the end of the following day, all 35 blocks of Greenwood had been utterly devastated. Nearly 300 people had been killed in the violence with most of the victims being black. They now lay in hastily dug mass graves whilst around 800 survivors received medical treatment for their injuries.

Around 8,000 people were left homeless after 1,200-1,400 homes had been burnt to the ground. Although the whites had been the aggressors some 6,000 black Tulsans found themselves in internment camps charged with inciting a riot, an erroneous claim aimed at implicating the black community for the events of the previous night.

Gurley and Stradford both lost their fortunes that night along with others who saw their promising businesses reduced to a pile of ash. Many left the area but those who stayed rebuilt Greenwood with no assistance from a city that tried to dampen their efforts at every turn.

Although it never quite achieved the prosperity it had once enjoyed in the early years of the 20th century, the community of Greenwood would eventually be reborn a decade or so after the Massacre.

After the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, increasing integration meant that black people no longer had to spend their money in black-owned businesses. Money began to leave the district and alongside it went the vibrancy of a once-bustling commercial hub.