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Tulsa Struggles to Make Amends for a Massacre It Ignored for Nearly a Century

The Oklahoma city's "Black Wall Street" was one of the richest African-American neighborhoods in the country. Then whites burned it to the ground.

On weekday mornings, enticing whiffs of bacon and fried potatoes waft from Wanda J’s Next Generation restaurant in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. The smell of breakfast on the griddle offers a comforting contrast to the sound of big rigs and commuter traffic roaring by on the Interstate 244 overpass that cleaves the neighborhood in two. 

At first glance, the Greenwood section of Tulsa doesn’t look much different from places in other cities where, in the name of urban renewal, new highways were erected in the 1960s, obliterating or dividing minority neighborhoods. Around the corner from Wanda J’s, there are signs of a revitalization effort -- or of gentrification, depending on whom you ask. A sign on an empty lot promises a future mixed-use development; a two-story historic building nearby has already been renovated with retail on the ground floor that includes a combo coffee shop and yoga studio, a bookstore, and a Vietnamese sandwich shop. 

But the sidewalks that line the streets of this neighborhood offer a grim reminder of Greenwood’s darker past. Every 20 or 30 feet, a plaque lists the name of a business -- a restaurant, grocer, lawyer, doctor, clothing store -- and below it, the words, “Destroyed in 1921.”

A hundred years ago, this 35-square-block section of Tulsa was home to one of the largest concentrations of African-American-owned enterprises and wealth in this country. It was so well-known at the time that Booker T. Washington nicknamed the area “Negro Wall Street.” At its peak, Greenwood was home to more than 300 businesses serving roughly 11,000 residents who, thanks to segregation, reinvested whatever they earned back into their community. By 1921, Black Wall Street, as it’s called today, boasted a three-story, chandeliered hotel as well as a public library, two newspapers, 23 churches and a high school that taught Latin, chemistry and physics.

That all changed on May 31 of that year when a black teenage boy was accused of assaulting a white female elevator operator. Within hours, marauding white residents swept into the district and burned it to the ground. Hundreds of black residents died; thousands were left homeless. City and state officials did nothing to stop the violence. Worse, they played a complicit role in the conflagration. Many of the invaders were deputized by local police; the state’s National Guard was deployed not to stop the riot but to move black residents into detention centers where some were forced to stay for weeks. Following the death and devastation, city officials continued on their hostile path. They tried to change zoning laws to make it difficult for Greenwood’s residents to rebuild -- a move curtailed by the courts. But despite the lack of support from city hall, the Greenwood survivors did return, and they began to reconstruct their lives and their livelihoods. In fact, much of the neighborhood was rebuilt within a few years.


Plaques memorializing the businesses destroyed during the 1921 massacre can be found throughout Greenwood. (David Kidd)

For decades, Tulsans -- blacks and whites -- dealt with the horrific event and its aftermath by ignoring it. “Shame, guilt, fear, PTSD -- all those things worked to create a conspiracy of silence that kept this out of the public light,” says Hannibal Johnson, a Tulsa historian and author of several books about Greenwood.

As the century reached middle age, desegregation and urban renewal helped repress those memories even further and caused additional wounds: Much of Greenwood’s once-thriving commercial center was torn down, its buildings and history erased; a highway was built through the center of the area. Kids born in Greenwood in the ’70s never learned about their neighborhood’s rich heritage -- about the heyday of Black Wall Street and the vibrancy of the people who lived there. Nor could they quite believe it when the true story of what happened in 1921 began emerging in the 1990s.

Now, as the 100th anniversary of the massacre approaches, the city and state are grappling not just with the past and its direct role in Greenwood’s deterioration, but also with what kind of progress has been made in race relations. In Tulsa, as elsewhere in the country, there are long-simmering resentments over police shootings of unarmed black men and of statues and buildings honoring Confederate soldiers who owned slaves and fought against the United States. Many blacks throughout the country feel their experience has been left out of history books and popular media coverage. Or if it is included, it is viewed through someone else’s lens.

In Tulsa, the city is struggling to address its deep racial divide -- most of the black population still lives in the north end -- and its own true history. “It’s still an open wound,” says Mechelle Brown, program coordinator of the Greenwood Cultural Center who spent years interviewing and researching survivors of the massacre. “The city still has a great deal of work to do to acknowledge what happened.”


“It’s still an open wound,” says Mechelle Brown of the Greenwood Cultural Center. “The city still has a great deal of work to do to acknowledge what happened.” (David Kidd)

After decades of silence, recognition of the horrific events in Greenwood got a jump-start in 1995. In April of that year, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, 19 of them children attending a day care facility in the building. At the time, the bombing was referred to as the deadliest act of domestic terror in U.S. history. To African-Americans who knew of Tulsa’s race massacre, it was a message that discounted their history. 

State Rep. Don Ross used the event to start a conversation about Greenwood. His efforts made a mark: He raised more than $3 million in private money to fund the Greenwood Cultural Center, which opened in 1996, and a memorial to Black Wall Street that sits out in front of the center. A year later, he sponsored a bill to investigate reparations for survivors of the massacre. That led to the formation of a state commission, which in 2001 published a report. 

The commission’s report offered the first government acknowledgment that the Greenwood massacre was in effect an act of domestic terrorism. It revised its account of the attack, updating the numbers of people killed and the cost of destruction. Rather than 34 people killed, the new number of deaths was found to be between 100 and 300 people. The amount of property damage, based on claims from Greenwood filed against the city in 1921, was $1.8 million -- nearly $26 million in today’s dollars. (Most of those claims were denied because the event was originally classified as a riot.) Most important for some, the commission made recommendations for actions the state and local government could take. Among them were an economic development fund for North Tulsa, a museum to honor the neighborhood’s cultural history and those who died, and reparations for survivors of the massacre.

At the time, the commission’s report offered a lot of hope for healing the racial divisions. But in the years since, city and state government have taken what many see as a half-measure approach. The state legislature established committees for a memorial museum, as well as a scholarship and a community development fund for North Tulsa, as recommended by the report. But little money was appropriated to maintain those entities. In the meantime, a reparations lawsuit filed by victims was dismissed by federal courts on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. The commission’s recommendation to establish a museum about the 1921 massacre evolved over time into the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which opened in 2010. The following year, the legislature mandated that the Tulsa massacre be taught in public schools, but offered no financial assistance to help develop a curriculum for it.

For some, the fits and starts over the years to make things right have only added to their frustration. “It’s one thing to say an apology,” says Brown. “It’s something else to put money on the table. [Survivors and their families] feel completely disregarded and left out of the conversation.”


Residents are trying to reclaim Greenwood’s storied past. (David Kidd)

To date, most of the effort to promote Black Wall Street’s history has been backed by private money, with the exception of a few state and federal grants. The mostly privately funded John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, for instance, is largely responsible for the curriculum that Oklahoma school teachers who choose to teach about the massacre use in their history lessons.

The city has also bungled some opportunities to make amends. In one of the most egregious examples, the city’s Brady Arts District was named for Wyatt Tate Brady, a figure prominent in Tulsa’s founding. But in 2011, documents came to light showing that Brady had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and was involved in the 1921 massacre in Greenwood. Powerless to change the name of the Brady Arts District, the city council, after weeks of heated debate, changed the namesake of the district’s main thoroughfare, Brady Street, to Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, who has no ties to Tulsa. 

What many view as a Band-Aid approach is just one more slight in a long list of insults that black Tulsans say they have lived with for generations. “Part of reconciliation is what do you give up,” says Dewayne Dickson, a Tulsa Community College professor and a member of the reconciliation center’s board of directors. “The reason for that is so everyone can have a sense of moving forward from what’s wrong. There must be some kind of measurable action to make right what’s wrong.”

Today, there are signs of progress, or at least of a closer understanding of the deeper implications of the assault a century ago. When G.T. Bynum ran for mayor of Tulsa in 2016, the divisions within the city were a central part of his campaign. A former city council member, Bynum says he was motivated to run for mayor after reading a report by the George Kaiser Family Foundation that found that a child born in North Tulsa has a lifespan 11 years shorter than a kid born elsewhere in the city. In the modern era, North Tulsa, which includes Greenwood, has always been the poorer part of town. “Reading that while sitting in my home with my family,” says Bynum, who is white, “that really changed things for me.”

After getting elected, Bynum created the Office of Resilience and Equity aimed at eliminating equity gaps in Tulsa’s schools, transportation systems and the economy. This summer, the office, which is funded through the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, unveiled its strategy. The plan includes both tangible and intangible goals such as eliminating the racial life expectancy gap by 2024 and “amplifying the voice of historically marginalized communities” by 2021. 

Still, many people think the city’s current efforts and its future plans don’t go nearly far enough. Tulsa civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons is one of them. He says the city and state should make amends for the past, that Tulsa and the state should make direct reparations to the victims. Economic prosperity, Solomon-Simmons observes, isn’t as attainable for North Tulsans as is their likelihood of being locked up. Meanwhile, many public officials have talked about healing, but most of the money that has gone toward that goal has been from private donations. As Solomon-Simmons sees it, the message to black Tulsans, many of them related to the original residents and business owners of Black Wall Street, is, “You don’t matter.”

Now, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the assault, there’s been renewed pressure to produce tangible results. A 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission, chaired by Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and North Tulsa native, is pushing a number of economic and cultural initiatives in and around Greenwood. This fall, Tulsa Public Schools officially adopted a curriculum for the massacre. The goal is to launch the curriculum statewide. Matthews also authored a bill that creates a revolving fund for the Oklahoma Historical Society with the aim of promoting cultural tourism opportunities in Greenwood. The commission is seeking private donations to establish a business development program in North Tulsa.

Bynum thinks a key part of the overall remedy will be creating new prosperity in North Tulsa using the tools of economic development. He hopes to build on the city’s investment in a minor league ballpark, which was built in the area in 2010. The city’s development authority inked a deal this summer to bring USA BMX’s new arena and headquarters facility to Greenwood. The arena could host the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials for the dirt track bike race. The city has also spent $2 million, including grant money, to clean up an industrial site within view of the Greenwood Cultural Center.

But with those developments, which could bring in money and clientele from all over Tulsa, the specter of gentrification looms large. It’s already creating yet another divide in Tulsa over Black Wall Street. 


State Sen. Kevin Matthews is pushing several economic development initiatives in Greenwood. (David Kidd)

Back at Wanda J’s restaurant on North Greenwood Avenue, the breakfast aromas have long receded and now a crowd and some local news reporters are gathering in front of the restaurant. For 40 some-odd years, Wanda J. Armstrong and her family have been in the restaurant business in Tulsa, serving up not just breakfast but also Southern staples like fried catfish, okra and peach cobbler. Armstrong left Greenwood in 1996 and returned in 2016. Due to a dispute over her lease with the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, she’s being told to leave. On this September afternoon, a handful of friends with bright hand-painted signs are protesting the eviction and accusing the chamber of “pushing out” black businesses. 

Down the street, art gallery owner Ricco Wright watches the news vans going by with a mix of bemusement and frustration. “They think I’m part of the gentrifiers,” he says. Wright is a Tulsa native who lived in New York City for a decade and earned his doctoral degree before returning here in 2014. His new gallery, Black Wall Street Arts, is one of several creative ventures he has started as a way to promote the history of the neighborhood. His gallery’s opening showcase features pieces from two local artists -- one black, one white. His hope is that the exhibit will facilitate the community’s larger conversation about race relations. He calls the series “Conciliation.” “I don’t think what we’re doing is ‘reconciliation,’” he says. “That implies we’re restoring relations, and I can’t think of when there were good relations here between blacks and whites.”

That ingrained lack of trust is perhaps the biggest challenge for Greenwood’s revival. There’s a suspicion regarding the renewed interest and development in the neighborhood. As the centennial draws near, there’s a genuine concern that the story of Greenwood will be whitewashed if these new folks -- the gentrifiers -- have a hand in promoting its history. African-American money built, and then rebuilt, Black Wall Street. But there’s a catch. That proud history of the black entrepreneurial spirit and wealth was linked inextricably to the fact that the residents were segregated from white businesses. In the modern era, to expect that only African-Americans should be a part of the neighborhood’s revival not only perpetuates the separation, but is not realistic. There simply aren’t enough wealthy African-American benefactors in Oklahoma, let alone Tulsa, to help. 

But there are benefactors. The George Kaiser Family Foundation, for one, is arguably Tulsa’s most prominent philanthropy. It recently launched Dream Tulsa to grow local talent and recruit black entrepreneurs from around the nation to reinvigorate Black Wall Street. Believing that new money like Kaiser’s will truly honor the district’s history and spirit requires a leap of faith: Maybe this time it will be different. There are still divides, but at least there seem to be more efforts to acknowledge a wrong and work toward righting it. “We have to go slow to go fast because there’s such a lack of trust in these outside influences,” says state Sen. Matthews. “In many cases we’re asking the people that looked like the people who burned down the area to help.”

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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