Tulsa Race Massacre Sidelined Legacy of Black Wealth in Greenwood

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TULSA, Okla.—Not much remains of the Greenwood neighborhood as it stood 100 years ago, when mobs of local whites, many deputized and given weapons by city officials, looted and destroyed 35 blocks of what was then one of the wealthiest Black communities in the nation.

Characterized by bustling streets with hotels, theaters and doctors offices, it later became known as “Black Wall Street.” A significant chunk of the district was razed during Tulsa’s urban renewal efforts, which local officials began roughly 70 years ago. An interstate highway was built over the district’s main strip, pushing residents further north.

Today North Tulsa, where many of the Greenwood residents’ descendants migrated, has a dearth of medical services available. A few weeks ago, a new full-service grocery store opened there, funded by Tulsa’s city government and various philanthropic organizations. It was the first in the area in 14 years.

“I survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, 106 years old, told a congressional subcommittee this month. “And I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses…My community, North Tulsa, Black Tulsa, is still messed up today…It’s empty, it’s a ghetto.”

The 100th anniversary of the massacre comes a year after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis set off a national debate on race, history and racial equality. Companies and workplaces have committed resources to diversity programs and big banks have pursued funding of Black-owned businesses. Many school districts have overhauled their curricula with a focus on race that has engendered fierce debates. State legislatures have battled over voting laws, police reforms and reparations.

Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle is one of few living survivors of the massacre. The 106-year-old testified in Congress on May 19.

Photo: U.S. House Judiciary Committee

In Tulsa, the 100th anniversary of the massacre, which began on May 31, 1921, is being marked by several weeks of commemorations, including lectures, music and other arts events.

Much of the focus will be on the human toll. A 2001 bipartisan state commission on the incident confirmed 38 deaths, but said the ultimate toll could be as high as 300. Hundreds of people were admitted to hospitals and at least 8,000 were left homeless.

The riot was sparked when a 19-year-old Black man was arrested on the charge of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman. A crowd of white men gathered around the county courthouse where he was being kept. As rumors spread that he would be lynched, groups of Black men, some of them armed, went to the courthouse. When a white man allegedly tried to disarm a Black man, a gun went off and a firefight broke out. The Black men retreated to Greenwood. Some white Tulsans spent the night planning an invasion of the neighborhood. Early the next morning, white rioters began to rampage through Greenwood, killing people and burning and looting businesses and homes.

The massacre’s legacy is also economic. Less than 60 years after the Civil War ended, Greenwood had become one of the nation’s most prosperous Black communities. It had luxury stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing retailers, restaurants, billiard halls and offices for doctors and other professionals. It had its own library, hospital, schools and post office.

The riots destroyed much of that. They caused at least $1.5 million in economic damage, according to the 2001 commission report—about $22 million in today’s dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some assessments place the damages far higher, noting that record-keeping was spottier a century ago and many losses were unreported.

Descendants of Greenwood entrepreneurs and homeowners say the massacre disrupted the growth of assets that could have been passed to them or used to start other ventures.

“Tulsa is just one example that Black people have shown the ability to create wealth, but have never had the opportunity to compound wealth,” said Harry Hollines, chief strategy officer for the Latino Leadership Institute, where he focuses on Latino and Black entrepreneurialism. “Every generation of Black families starts over.”

A view of Greenwood today, with a highway over the main strip.

Photo: Trent Bozeman for The Wall Street Journal

Ever since, Tulsa has been a symbol of the challenges facing many Black communities in building and sustaining wealth. The gap in median wealth between Black and white Americans is wider today than it was in 1983, the first year it was measured in the Survey of Consumer Finances. A 2019 survey by the Federal Reserve found that a typical white family had eight times the wealth of a typical Black family.

The ability to pass down assets over generations plays an important role in the gap. Black people, who are projected to be about 14% of the population by 2030, will pass down only 2% to 3% of the $68.4 trillion in wealth expected to be inherited over the next 25 years, according to a study by Boston-based research and consulting firm Cerulli Associates.

Tulsa International Airport

Sand

Springs

(Current borders)

Broken Arrow

Tulsa International Airport

(Current borders)

Broken Arrow

Tulsa International Airport

(Current borders)

Broken Arrow

Greenwood’s history since 1921 shows other obstacles that have faced Black communities. Although the massacre destroyed the neighborhood, it wasn’t the death knell for Greenwood. Even as the Red Cross was erecting tents for them, survivors began planning to rebuild. After struggling through the Great Depression, by 1940 the Black homeownership rate in the Tulsa metro area had outstripped that of white residents. In 1941, there were a little more than 240 businesses in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, according to a recent copy of the neighborhood’s application for the National Register of Historic Places.

But decades of postwar government policies, including desegregation, urban renewal, housing discrimination and the highway project, took their own toll, whittling away at Greenwood in ways that proved more difficult to recover from.

As Tulsa desegregated, Black-owned businesses often found it hard to compete on price and supply with white-owned counterparts. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority used funds from a federal program to demolish buildings in the name of blight removal. Government decisions to relocate businesses and run a highway through Greenwood helped empty out the neighborhood years ago. The effect, Black leaders say, has been to diminish their ability to enact policies like those potentially directing more capital to Black businesses.

Greenwood was rebuilt, and the Black homeownership rate in the Tulsa metro area outstripped that of white residents by 1940.

Photo: Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images

“We see it in Black Wall Streets all around the country,” said Shennette Garrett-Scott, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi who studies Black finance and banking before the Depression. “These interstates bypass capital from these communities.”

By 1958, Black residents were 10% of Tulsa’s population but only 3% of buyers of new homes, according to a Tulsa Urban League report issued that year and obtained from the University of Tulsa.

Today’s Greenwood is a fraction of its former size and bears little resemblance to its earlier years. Plaques commemorate many of the businesses that thrived in the area before the massacre. But property in the neighborhood is largely owned by large institutions or white real-estate developers. There are relatively few Black entrepreneurs compared with the hundreds that used to live in the district. Some Tulsans say Greenwood represents something that was taken and never fully returned.

“I do believe that restitution is still due,” said Brenda Nails-Alford, a descendant of the Nails family, who lost their homes and businesses in the 1921 massacre. “I’m still wanting justice.”

Tulsa officials say they are sensitive to such concerns and aware of past decisions that harmed Greenwood, as well as the challenges to wealth creation in neighborhoods like it. Preventing the displacement of Black businesses, managing housing affordability and increasing access to capital are hurdles facing Tulsa, said Kian Kamas, Tulsa’s economic development chief.

“Those are all things that I think historically we just hadn’t done,” she said, “But I think it’s something that we’re focused on now.”

Brenda Nails-Alford, next to a plaque that commemorates the legacy of her late aunt, Dr. Cecelia Nails Palmer, who survived the massacre.

Photo: Trent Bozeman for The Wall Street Journal

The Tulsa Massacre | 100 Years Later

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