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.