The Tulsa Massacre at 100: How Free Enterprise and Private Dollars Built and Rebuilt a Black Community

The Tulsa Massacre at 100: How Free Enterprise and Private Dollars Built and Rebuilt a Black Community

Jun 03, 2021 Patrice Onwuka

One hundred years ago, simmering racial tensions in the post-Civil War west came to boil, erupting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After two days of violence, bloodshed and destruction at the hands of a white mob, dozens of Blacks were killed and 35 blocks of a once prosperous Black community were burned to the ground.

Yet, out of that dark period in our nation’s history shines examples of resilience and brotherhood that allowed the area known as “Black Wall Street” to be rebuilt and Blacks to once again rise. While philanthropy played a role, we are reminded that self-reliance, entrepreneurship, education and Blacks investing in themselves were powerful weapons against discrimination and for prosperity. They still are important today.

For many years, little was said or known about the events of May 31 to June 1, 1921. Today, we know from eyewitness accounts, public records and oral histories, some of which were captured in a 2001 report, that what occurred was a massacre. The death toll is anywhere between dozens to hundreds, and the devastation registered at least $22 million in today’s dollars.

The attack was particularly blistering for what it represented: a direct attack on one of the biggest centers of Black wealth and prosperity. The mob destroyed what has come to be known as “Black Wall Street.” Located in Tulsa, Greenwood was an exclusively Black-occupied neighborhood. At the heart of Greenwood was a bustling center of commerce that was solely Black-owned. As I wrote this week in Newsmax:

“Racism was enshrined in strictly enforced Jim Crow laws and segregation, yet Blacks thrived by creating an independent community supported by and catering to the every need of its Black residents.

“There were nearly 200 businesses in Greenwood. There were, including clothing stores, shoe stores, tailors, cleaners, beauticians, barbershops, drugstores, jewelry stores, an upholstery store, grocery stores and meat markets. Greenwood boasted 15 doctors, one chiropractor, two dentists and three lawyers. There was a library, two schools, a hospital, a public health office, as well as Black fraternal lodges and churches. There were many restaurants, bars and clubs, hotels and even a 750-seat theater that offered live musical, theatrical performances and silent movies accompanied by a piano player. The thriving business district became known as Black Wall Street.”

The commerce of Black Wall Street created a wealthy class of magnates and a healthy middle class of small business owners. The least were cared for by civic associations and the robust church presence. A generation after slavery, the area was on its way to achieving the American Dream through hard work and investments. As the commission report noted, “Grit, hard work and determination were the main reasons for this success, as were the entrepreneurial skills that were imported to Tulsa from smaller communities across Oklahoma.”

Those same values along with the resilience of the people prompted Blacks to rebuild Greenwood within just two decades. Through lending circles, loans made by wealthy Blacks and financial institutions, Blacks leveraged the land under the rubble of their establishments. Residents formed their own commission to rebuild with a thousand businessmen reportedly agreeing to contribute to a city-wide rebuilding fund. There were at least as many businesses in the two decades following the massacre as there were prior to it. There were no reparations or any form of government assistance, yet Blacks came together and rebuilt their community.

In addition, bankers, business owners and civic leaders organized city-wide relief to help the thousands left homeless and destitute. Working with civic organizations including the Red Cross, families were sheltered, fed and housed in the immediate aftermath and for some time after that. Black and white residents came together to help those left impoverished. Despite the help, some families left rather than rebuild.

In the decades that followed the rebuilding of Greenwood, some government policies ended discrimination against Blacks and advanced equality for the better of society, while others were well-intended but delivered negative consequences. Desegregation may have ended the blatantly racist policies and cleared the way for integration in the long-term, but it also presented short-term challenges by diluting the economic strength of Black enclaves and giving Black-owned businesses new competition. Community development projects and government projects, including highways, that ran through Greenwood displaced businesses, took away land and eroded the economic power of Black small business owners. Successive generations of Blacks believe more wealth would have been passed down through homeownership, land and family businesses had it not been for the Tulsa massacre and government policies. 

Greenwood is not alone in facing these challenges. Other Black centers experienced similar evolutions over time. Although rebuilding Black metropolises across America may not be feasible or even desirable, the entrepreneurial spirit, self-reliance and community-building aspects of their ancestors can be replicated to inspire future generations.

As we remember the Tulsa Massacre we can acknowledge how far our nation has evolved from the atrocities of deep, blatant and violent racism while acknowledging that there is still more to do. Instead of depending on bureaucrats and policymakers to advance the ball of opportunity alone, empowerment for Blacks, minorities and others struggling in poverty will depend on freedom, opportunity and these communities investing in themselves. Philanthropy can and has come alongside those efforts by providing basic needs for supporting innovative programs in education and professional development. Charitable dollars alone, like government dollars, cannot solve the problem. The resilience and resourcefulness of communities must lead the way.