The intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1917.

Bringing Black Wall Street back to life

More than a hundred years after the rise and destruction of Greenwood, Tulsa is transforming the site of a tragedy into a vibrant community hub

More than a century ago, the Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood of Greenwood was a thriving neighborhood of Black-owned businesses, hotels, stores and a hospital. Dubbed as “the Negro Wall Street of America” by Booker T. Washington, one of the founders of Tuskegee University and one of the most influential African American leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Greenwood was a hub of economic activity, entrepreneurship and creativity – a place where the Black community had the freedom to make a world of their own. Soon it became widely known as Black Wall Street.

When Karen Robinson, a senior vice president at Bank of America, recalls her own family’s story of establishing Greenwood’s only movie theater in 1913, she thinks of the indomitable spirit of people like her great-grandparents, John and Loula Williams, who opened the Dreamland Theatre in 1913: “They moved to Tulsa in the hopes of getting to the Promised Land,” Robinson says. “They were part of a close-knit community of like-minded spirits — doctors, lawyers, newspaper publishers and entrepreneurs — who never squandered an opportunity to support each other in their pursuit of a better life.” Read how she learned about her connection to Black Wall Street.

But that community suffered a terrible blow between May 31st and June 1st in 1921, when it became the site of the worst single event of racial terrorism in America’s history. There, a misinterpreted encounter triggered a chain of events that resulted in up to 10,000 white Tulsans storming the community of Greenwood. During 18 hours of mayhem, somewhere between 100 and 300 African American residents were killed, 35 blocks of real estate were looted and set ablaze, and thousands of families were displaced. Worse yet, because no one was ever charged for any crimes, the wounds inflicted on the soul of Tulsa never fully healed.

But the story of Greenwood did not begin with the massacre, nor does it stop there. Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews, who has spearheaded efforts to memorialize the community and the massacre leading up to the 100th anniversary this June, notes that the historical significance of Greenwood extends well beyond the tragedy. “The massacre of 1921 is just a dark chapter in a long and illustrious story about the pioneering spirit of the men and women who — through sheer will and determination — built and rebuilt the Greenwood District.”

To continue that important American story, Greenwood Rising came into being. A planned state-of-the-art history center situated in the heart of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, the project aspires to draw more attention to this under-told story, as well as encourage a broader recognition of the history of racial violence and how Tulsa, and the United States at large, can grow by facing that past.

A hidden history emerges

Interest in capturing the story of the Greenwood District has been building for decades. In 1998, Hannibal B. Johnson’s Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District chronicled the lost history of the community. In 2001, a commission to study the massacre released a 200-page report and leaders began to explore how the city of Tulsa could best tell the story of Greenwood — a story that many people who were born and raised in Tulsa never knew. Then in 2015, Matthews formed and chaired a bipartisan state commission to consider how best to memorialize the history of Black Wall Street and the 1921 massacre. Encouragingly, this process of determining how to raise awareness and foster a healthy dialogue about the past has led to a groundswell of support over the years, Matthews says.

As part of its four-year, $1 billion initiative to advance racial equality and economic opportunity, Bank of America has provided a $1 million grant to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission in support of Greenwood Rising, which is the largest contribution from a company not headquartered in Tulsa. A portion of the grant is dedicated to the center’s capital campaign, while the remainder will help support a number of the center’s most important initiatives. These include educational programming with an age-appropriate K-12 curriculum on the history of African Americans in Tulsa, teacher workshops and school field trips to Greenwood Rising, as well as entrepreneurial programming for future Black entrepreneurs, financial literacy workshops taught by Bank of America Better Money Habits’ Champions and a women-focused business incubator. Through the center, plans are underway to create internship opportunities for African American youth to learn about business essentials such as running payroll, managing cash flow and operating a business in today’s digital economy. The center will also introduce community commemoration events to encourage healthy dialogue about Tulsa’s past, reconciliation and new pathways for a bright future.

Bill Lissau, Tulsa market president at Bank of America, is a fourth-generation Tulsan who says he’s felt moved by seeing how the bank’s values have aligned with the community in such a profound way. “Like many cities, there is a history of racial trauma and inequity in Tulsa. What makes Tulsa standout is that we are actively working on reconciliation, we have a strong philanthropic community, and we truly believe in helping one another,” Lissau says. “Meanwhile, at Bank of America, we try to lead from the front by being impactful with our dollars.”

According to Phil Armstrong, project director of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, these types of partnerships with the business community have been instrumental in making Greenwood Rising a reality. “The Bank of America gift helped us gain the attention of other large companies outside of Oklahoma. It sent the message that companies should care about this,” Armstrong says.

A new flame ignited

In the coming months the Greenwood Rising history center will open its door. The growing support to commemorate the history of the Greenwood District has galvanized the entire Tulsa community. As Greenwood Rising’s unveiling draws near, people far and wide continue to coalesce around the center’s mission and what it means for the future of Tulsa. “The energy of the city is focused on Greenwood,” says historian Johnson, who is curating the center’s exhibitions and has written the forthcoming Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with Its Historical Racial Trauma. “This is the beginning of the resurgence of what Greenwood was.”

This project has not only helped raise awareness of the history of Black Wall Street, but it has also ignited a new flame of entrepreneurship and excitement about the prospects for increased economic activity. “There’s been a passing of the torch,” Matthews says. “In addition to the new generation of Greenwood entrepreneurs opening businesses on Black Wall Street, there are businesses that want to be on Greenwood Avenue. Ultimately, this means there will be more dollars supporting local businesses.”

The story of Greenwood is a story of America: complex, multilayered and continually evolving. Yet acknowledging past wrongs can lead the way to addressing present challenges through partnerships between public leaders, local citizens and the business community.

Learn more about Bank of America’s commitment to promote racial equality and economic opportunity, including support for communities across the country as they navigate local challenges, from access to meaningful employment to affordable housing.

karen robinson headshot

A Personal Connection to Black Wall Street

Karen Robinson, a senior vice president with Bank of America in Richmond, Virginia, shares her family’s story of establishing Greenwood’s only movie theater in 1913 and memories of the entrepreneurial spirit of people like her great grandparents, John and Loula Williams. Read how she learned about her connection to Black Wall Street.

Originally published 02/05/2021