A personal connection to Black Wall Street

Karen Robinson’s father rarely spoke with her about the history around the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, and her father, David Williams, rarely visited Tulsa. Still, her Tulsa roots extend back to her great-grandparents, and she had an inkling from an early age that her family was “somehow connected” to the Greenwood District in Tulsa. It wasn’t until Robinson was an adolescent, however, during a trip to Oklahoma with the family that her grandfather, W.D. Williams, affectionately referred to as “Daddo,” shared his parents’ extraordinary story with her for the first time.

The Dreamland Theatre

The Dreamland Theatre, founded in 1913 by Robinson’s great-grandparents, John and Loula Williams.

Robinson’s great-grandfather, John Williams, was a mechanic with his own car repair shop in Greenwood and one of the first African Americans in Tulsa to own a car. Because John wanted to expand his garage, he and his wife, Loula, built a larger building, with plans to operate a boarding house upstairs. When city ordinances prohibited this, they purchased equipment from a shuttered movie theater. Shortly thereafter, the Dreamland Theatre was born. With a seating capacity of 700, it screened the latest silent movies and featured live performances. The entrepreneurial couple also had a confectionery and a number of other businesses, all of which were destroyed in the 1921 massacre.

Karen Robinson

Karen Robinson,
Senior Vice President, Bank of America

Learning about her family has filled Robinson, a senior vice president at Bank of America, with a strong desire to make sure the world knows about the courage and entrepreneurial spirit of those who helped transform the Greenwood District into Black Wall Street. When she learned that Bank of America was contributing a $1 million grant to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission in support of Greenwood Rising, a center that will memorialize Black Wall Street, she shared her family’s story. “It has been humbling to be part of an organization that is taking an active role in addressing social challenges and has committed so much to helping share the story of Greenwood,” Robinson says. “My career has taken me to Atlanta, Charlotte and now Richmond, and I have always felt the support of the bank. But there are no words to describe the feeling I have knowing about its commitment to Greenwood. It’s just powerful.”

Honoring the Legacy of Tulsa's Black Wall Street

Karen Robinson tells her great-grandparents' story of surviving the 1921 massacre. In an interview with the Black Information Network, the Bank of America employee recalls the many businesses they founded-including the Williams Dreamland Theater-and a new museum that brings the story to life.

Originally published on 02/09/2021.