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Black Wall Street: The African American Haven That Burned and Then Rose From the Ashes

The story of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district isn’t well known. But the racially motivated destruction of the thriving community in the early 20th century has never been told in a manner worthy of its importance. As the 100-year anniversary approaches, local residents and Hollywood grapple with how to tell the story of a town’s dark past.

Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

“Don’t you realize that Greenwood was Wakanda before Wakanda?”

It’s a sweltering May evening in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a local poet named Phetote Mshairi is performing for a crowd of about three dozen onlookers. His large black T-shirt is emblazoned with a solemn picture of Barack Obama, the monochrome pattern of the illustration matching the wispy white tendrils flowing out of his dark beard. Above him, two street signs stacked atop each other offer dueling histories of the corner. This is Greenwood Avenue, a sleepy thoroughfare that winds past a new luxury apartment complex, through the Oklahoma State University–Tulsa campus, and into the northern half of the city. But it’s also a haven once known as Black Wall Street, the epicenter of African American entrepreneurship and wealth in the early 20th century.

Mshairi’s poem is called “The Line,” a reference to the railroad tracks just half a block down Greenwood, which have served as the demarcation point between North and South Tulsa — between the black world and the white one — for more than a century. On this evening 97 years ago, thousands of white Tulsa residents crossed those tracks and launched a night of terror that would leave more than 1,200 of Greenwood’s homes and businesses destroyed, hundreds of black residents dead, and a thriving community burned to an ashen heap.

According to eye-witness accounts, the scope of the attack was equal to warfare: homeowners shot dead in their front yards, planes dropping turpentine bombs onto buildings, a machine gun firing bullets on a neighborhood church. It was a living nightmare, and for many decades Tulsa treated it as such, a dark apparition of the mind that might fade from memory so long as it was repressed.

Before its burning, Greenwood Avenue had been lined with hotels, restaurants, furriers, and even an early taxi service using a Ford Model T. Nearly 200 businesses populated the 35-square-block district in all, as did some homes as stately as the ones owned by upper-class whites in the city. That was the vision Mshairi conjured when he invoked Wakanda, the Afrofuturist utopia in Black Panther. Before it became a nightmare, Black Wall Street was a dream in progress, a symbol of black success in a turbulent period of racialized violence.

We were standing at the heart of a great contradiction, a deeply American paradox of hate and hope. And yet that evening, on that block, few people seemed to care. Hundreds of Tulsans were walking past us and into ONEOK Field, the art deco stadium built just off Greenwood Avenue in 2010. The Tulsa Drillers were playing the San Antonio Missions in Double-A baseball.

Tulsa is different from other cities that were sites of a great racial cataclysm. Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, which boasts majestic Rebel statues, is in a constant public debate about its tainted Civil War heritage. Selma, Alabama, where an attack on peaceful marchers became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, has a commemoration every year that regularly attracts sitting presidents. But Tulsa’s massacre happened in a time that we don’t talk about, when black independence and white resentment collided in an especially violent way. It upends the history lessons that Americans pass down — that black people were passive victims from the slave ships to the “I Have a Dream” speech, that white violence was the unique dogma of church-bombing extremists. Black Wall Street scrambles the accepted timeline so much that it’s easier to forget the place ever existed.

So in Tulsa and elsewhere, it endures as a hazy myth, a vague memory that flickers in and out of the national consciousness. Until this year, there was no specified curriculum for teaching it in Oklahoma’s schools, let alone in other states. The district is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And there are no major movies or television series depicting the events that transpired there, despite a recent spate of projects about the black experience in both the antebellum and civil rights eras, including The Birth of a Nation and Selma.

Tulsa lawmakers and historians say the time has come for the story of Black Wall Street — the good and the bad — to get the same kind of national exposure as the Nat Turner slave rebellion or the “Bloody Sunday” Selma-to-Montgomery march. Some in Hollywood think so, too, with prominent entertainers such as John Legend and Oprah Winfrey planning to bring Greenwood’s history to television. But the effort to see Black Wall Street reimbursed, revitalized, or at the very least remembered has been a struggle since the killing ended and the smoke still darkened Tulsa’s skies.

“To turn that tragedy into triumph, we have to tell the story that’s uncomfortable for some but important for the rest of us,” says Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and North Tulsa native. “And we have to tell it now.”

Clockwise from top left: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Princetta R. Newman; Greenwood Cultural Center; Greenwood Cultural Center; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Tulsa Friends and John W. and Karen R. Franklin

Before the place called Greenwood existed, the black folks in Oklahoma dreamed big. They first arrived with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in the mid-19th century, both as slaves and as freedmen. Thanks to treaties negotiated between the United States and Native tribes after the Civil War, many black people who had been granted citizenship in those tribes were eventually granted large parcels of land, according to Hannibal Johnson’s book Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. By pooling their resources and welcoming blacks from the Southeast seeking a better life, they were able to form dozens of all-black towns in the region. In 1890, Edwin P. McCabe, a politician who founded the all-black town of Langston, met with President Benjamin Harrison to pitch the idea of turning the Oklahoma Territory into an all-black state.

Tulsa became Oklahoma’s most vital boomtown when petroleum was discovered there in 1901. The oil rush created instant wealth for many whites, but also for some of those landowning blacks with ties to the Native tribes. And the city’s new monied status attracted entrepreneurs of all races. Segregation forced blacks into the northern part of Tulsa, and the need for community there created economic opportunity. When the district’s first grocery store opened in 1905 at the corner of Greenwood and Archer Street — the same corner where Mshairi recited his poem — Black Wall Street was born.

“A better moniker for what was going on in Tulsa than Black Wall Street would have been Black Main Street,” says Johnson, a Tulsa historian and author of several books about Greenwood. “What we’re talking about really are sole-proprietorship mom-and-pop businesses. Things like pharmacies, dry cleaners, haberdasheries, barber shops, beauty shops, movie theaters, pool halls. Professional services like doctors, lawyers, dentists. Just the kinds of small businesses that make a place vibrant and engaging for folks.”

By 1921, Greenwood had a high school that taught Latin, chemistry, and physics; a three-story hotel with a chandeliered living room; and a silent movie theater accompanied by a live pianist. There were 23 churches, two newspapers, and a public library serving about 11,000 black residents. The district’s most successful entrepreneurs reinvested in the community, building parks and additional housing.

Greenwood also had gambling, prostitution, and drugs. There were elegant homes along its most prominent residential avenues, while shanties without running water lined many side streets. This was hardly a utopia — it was bound by the realities of Tulsa’s abundance of human vice and its systematic white oppression. But, along with prominent black business districts in Durham, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, the people of Greenwood achieved a level of black economic success and self-determination that had never existed before in the United States, then less than 60 years removed from slavery. Today it remains an aspirational symbol, with entrepreneurs and app developers invoking the Black Wall Street name to rally people to support black-owned businesses.

“The thing that the survivors said made it possible for them to build Black Wall Street [was] the fact that when one person built their business, they grabbed the hand of their brother or sister and helped them build their business,” says Mechelle Brown, program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, a community gathering place and historical archive.

Greenwood’s prosperity earned it the moniker “Negro Wall Street.” But the white people in South Tulsa called it “niggertown.” There was a brewing resentment among whites about the rising wealth and confidence of black Americans, not only in Oklahoma but around the United States. This anger exploded in the Red Summer of 1919, when a series of at least 25 race riots across the country claimed hundreds of black lives in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Arkansas, among other places. World War I was an animating force in the conflicts, with black soldiers returning home from Europe less willing to accept systematic oppression as their reward for risking their lives. “They come home to parades on Fifth Avenue, but they were lynched in their uniforms across the country the summer of 1919,” says John W. Franklin, a senior manager at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Tulsa World

In Tulsa, white frustrations simmered a couple of years longer, until a spring 1921 encounter between two teenagers caused them to boil over. On May 30, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner, entered a downtown office building elevator operated by Sarah Page, a white attendant. The two teens touched. Page said he assaulted her, but Rowland later said he had put his hand on her arm. By the time the elevator doors reopened, Page was screaming and Rowland was running for his life.

The rumor was rape, spread further by a Tulsa Tribune article the next day claiming that Rowland had tried to tear off Page’s clothes. Accusations of impropriety toward white women were common against black men during the period and often led to executions. Rowland was arrested and locked in the local courthouse, where blacks feared he might be dragged out and lynched for his alleged crime. A small phalanx of Greenwood men, some of them armed, drove downtown on the evening of May 31 to ensure that Rowland was safe. They found a crowd of hundreds of white men, many of them also armed, outside the courthouse. Eventually a black World War I veteran and a white man got into a scuffle over the veteran’s right to wield a weapon. A gunshot rang out, but it might as well have been a battle cry. Within minutes, 20 men on both sides were dead or wounded, and Tulsa was at war.

As many as 5,000 armed whites, hundreds of them deputized by the police, descended on Greenwood that night and into the next morning. They used a mixture of plundering, coercion, and violence to reassert the supposed racial hierarchy of Tulsa. Houses were looted for their valuables, like jewelry, as well as their invaluables, like family Bibles. If the invaders found a building still occupied, they’d sometimes lead residents to a detention center in downtown Tulsa. Other times, they’d murder the occupants. A.C. Jackson, a prominent Greenwood surgeon, was shot by two assailants when he emerged from his home with his hands in the air.

Buildings were set on fire systematically, with teams of white rioters gathering flammable materials in the center of a room, dousing them with kerosene, and igniting them. The fire department failed to respond to most emergency calls during the night. Planes circled overhead — according to police, they were for reconnaissance, but survivors said they dropped bombs filled with turpentine or coal oil. Either way, along with the roving machine gun that white attackers mounted on a truck, heavy-duty weaponry confirmed that Greenwood had transformed from a neighborhood to a war zone in a matter of hours.

Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

Some blacks fought back, staging pitched battles to defend the district’s borders. Others fled farther north into neighboring communities, never to return. But most were hauled to internment camps around the city at gunpoint, where they were forced to stay until a white person (often their employer) would come and vouch for them. Some residents were imprisoned for as long as two weeks, and even after they were set free, they had to carry around green identification cards signed by whites to prove they posed no threat.

The attack on Greenwood destroyed 1,256 houses and saw the looting of another 215, according to the American Red Cross, leaving 9,000 black Tulsans homeless. Virtually all the district’s businesses were gone. An accurate death toll will likely never be calculated, though eyewitnesses said they saw unidentified black bodies stacked onto trucks and dumped into unmarked graves. While the Tulsa Race Riot Commission issued a report in 2001 confirming only 39 deaths (26 black and 13 white), it also acknowledged that previous fatality estimates ranging from 100 to 300 people were credible.

Greenwood residents claimed $1.8 million in damages (about $25 million in today’s dollars), but insurance companies and the city of Tulsa denied the claims, citing the fact that the attack had been deemed a riot. A grand jury investigation organized by Oklahoma’s governor in the days after the attack found that the black men who went to the courthouse to protect Dick Rowland were at fault for the destruction of Greenwood. A Tulsa minister laid the blame on W.E.B. DuBois, who had visited the city several months prior. Anyone except the white people who had invaded Greenwood could be held responsible; the outcomes of various lawsuits against the organizers of last year’s violent Charlottesville protests will illustrate whether that mind-set has really changed in the last century.

The charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. Sarah Page gave a statement to police recanting her assault claim just hours before the shooting started. White people put the incident behind them. Black people, facing an uncertain path forward in Greenwood, lived in tents on the plots of their former houses. Though the attack initially prompted a wave of outraged articles from outlets like The New York Times (“one of the most disastrous race wars ever visited upon an American city”), it quickly receded from the national memory, and then from the local one.

“That a place like that could be destroyed and its destruction be hidden, that’s really remarkable,” says Franklin, whose grandfather survived and wrote about the attack. “It seems like the white community for the most extent won’t talk about this history. It’s more than embarrassing. It’s horrific. It’s genocide. It’s ethnic cleaning.”

Clockwise from top left: Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress); Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Deborah Hunter remembers when Greenwood was the heartbeat of North Tulsa. As a child she ate sumptuous Sunday meals at her aunt’s house, which doubled as a beauty shop. She prayed at Paradise Baptist Church, just a short walk from the stores and restaurants lining Greenwood Avenue. She skated at the neighborhood rink and caught matinees at the Rex Theater, where kids could see movies for a dime. “We had everything,” she says. “That was our downtown.”

Hunter, now a social worker for Tulsa’s library system, was born in 1950, three decades after Greenwood burned to the ground. In 1971, when she was on a visit home, a cousin gave her a local magazine with the coverline “PROFILE OF A RACE RIOT,” the words engulfed in angry flames. That was how she first discovered that the world she grew up in had literally risen from the ashes. “I was just stunned. How could no one have told me about this?” she says. “I was really just devastated to know that that had happened because there were no signs of it when I was growing up. Everything had been built back, and nobody talked about it.”

The revival of Black Wall Street began almost immediately after its burning. Initially, the city of Tulsa promised to help rebuild what its citizens had destroyed; instead, officials passed an ordinance requiring that new structures in Greenwood be at least two stories tall and made of expensive fireproof materials. It was a naked attempt to price black residents out of their own community. But a trio of local lawyers, including John W. Franklin’s grandfather, B.C. Franklin, filed a lawsuit against the city. They worked out of a tent in the burned-out business district and eventually brought the case to the state Supreme Court, which deemed the ordinance unconstitutional.

By the end of 1921, Greenwood residents had rebuilt more than 800 structures in the neighborhood. By June 1922, virtually all of the area’s homes had been replaced. And by 1925, the National Negro Business League was holding its annual conference in Tulsa, indicating that Black Wall Street’s stature as an economic force had been restored.

Over the ensuing decades, Greenwood continued to thrive. More than 240 businesses populated the area by the early 1940s. Musicians such as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington played in the neighborhood’s jazz clubs. “Greenwood is something more than an avenue — it is an institution,” the district’s chamber of commerce declared in 1941. “The people of Tulsa have come to regard it as a symbol of racial prominence and progress — not only for the restricted area of the street itself, but for the Negro section of Tulsa as a whole.”

But even as Greenwood prospered again, the riot morphed into forgotten lore. No one learned about it in school. And at home, some black families chose to bury the trauma rather than expose it to their offspring. After discovering the magazine article, Hunter remembers the challenge of getting her grandmother to acknowledge that she had survived the attack and been placed in an internment camp. “She didn’t want to talk about it,” Hunter says. “I think it was a combination of the trauma and fear.”

Hunter is taking it upon herself to help ensure her grandmother’s experience is remembered. She’s among more than a dozen local Tulsans starring in Tulsa ’21: Black Wall Street, a new play about the race massacre and its aftermath, which will run in the city at the end of June. Many of the people in the all-black, all-volunteer cast are first-time actors who joined the production to learn more about their city’s history. The play interweaves the perspectives of both white and black Tulsans from the 1920s and the modern era. In one rehearsal I observed, 27-year-old Geren Davis alternated between a swaggering portrayal of Dick Rowland and a ragefully despairing depiction of Andre Harris, the brother of Eric Harris, an unarmed black man killed by Tulsa police in 2015. “I got so emotionally attached,” Davis told me. “It was almost like I wasn’t acting anymore — like I was really his brother and really mad about the whole thing.”

The play is being directed by Tara Brooke Watkins, a theater professor at Eastern Nazarene College near Boston. Though Watkins is a Tulsa native, she didn’t learn about the burning of Black Wall Street until she was in graduate school at Emerson College. Later, after researching the history of Greenwood, she returned to Tulsa to host story circles with local residents, where they discussed their own dealings with racism and how they related to the 1921 massacre. (Andre Harris was among the participants.) Those insights are also included in the play. “It’s so foundational to Tulsa’s history, and most kids have never heard about it,” she says of the massacre. “How does community respond to their own history when it is presented through theater? That’s what I will be very intrigued to hear.”

Tulsa ’21 is one of several local productions that have emerged in recent years to help Tulsa make sense of its dark past. Vanessa Adams-Harris has been performing Big Mama Speaks, a one-woman play about a survivor of the 1921 massacre, off and on for nearly 10 years. Though the titular character is fictional, she draws from historical works written by Hannibal Johnson and from Adams-Harris’s own black, Creek Nation, and German heritages. “Art gives us a bridge to travel into stories,” she says. “We can transition into a story through art and then feel safe enough to go back home.”

Both Big Mama Speaks and Tulsa ’21 are passion projects, but in the cold calculus of Hollywood, the Black Wall Street narrative has found fewer financial backers. Part of the problem is that the story of the massacre, if told accurately, would paint thousands of white people as pillagers and murderers. Black historical narratives that make it to the screen tend to incorporate a white savior — think Matthew McConaughey in Amistad or Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave. Those that don’t have one, like Danny Glover’s long-in-development film about the Haitian Revolution, can languish for decades. Tulsa historians also suspect that the cool reception to Rosewood, the 1997 John Singleton film about the destruction of a black town in Florida, has quelled interest in another film about a racial massacre. “How many movies have been done about these horrific racial events that really highlight our history of white supremacy?” says Johnson. “Structurally, we are inculturated with a history that is less unpleasant than history really is. A lot of our history is really ugly.”

Now, though, may actually be a ripe time for a Black Wall Street project to take off. The centennial of the massacre in 2021 will bring a surge of renewed interest in Greenwood. Black Panther, the highest-grossing movie of the year, proved that a movie with a predominantly black cast can have broad appeal. And Greenwood, like Wakanda, offers a prosperous setting at odds with the usual pop culture locales of black suffering: the plantation, the tumultuous ’60s, the dangerous inner city. “There’s only so many slave narratives that we want to see,” says Mike Jackson, a partner at Get Lifted Film Co. along with John Legend. “There’s been a change in the perception of black narratives and the types of stories an audience would want to consume.”

Get Lifted specializes in historical tales that cast black people as heroes rather than victims. The WGN show Underground, which garnered positive reviews and strong ratings, dares to portray a group of slaves’ journey to freedom via the Underground Railroad as entertainment first, sober historical account second. The show has a freewheeling, contemporary style that can lead to some awkward juxtapositions — a romantic encounter between two slaves soundtracked to the Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” is more than a little jarring — but also allows its characters to be something more than museum exhibits. “We didn’t want you to feel like you’re walking through a college professor’s lecture as much as you were being entertained,” Jackson says. “For us, it was about finding a way to educate folks about our history without it feeling like a history lesson.”

In 2016, after Underground’s successful debut, Jackson pitched a show about Black Wall Street to WGN’s executives. I asked him whether this story, which exposes a rarely discussed era of vicious white brutality, might be a tougher sell in Hollywood than the well-trod topic of slavery. Jackson didn’t think so. “Television and film [audiences] love disasters,” he says. “I don’t think networks would run from Black Wall Street because of the fire. I think they’d run to the fire.” WGN executives bought the idea the moment he pitched it.

The show was tentatively set to debut this year. However, after WGN’s parent company, Tribune Media, was purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2017, Underground and the other shows in the network’s prestige TV lineup were abruptly canceled. Jackson’s Black Wall Street project was suddenly caught in a limbo that’s become common among efforts to tell the story of Greenwood. Oprah has been planning a miniseries about Greenwood and sent a group of writers to Tulsa to do research for the project in 2015, but there’s been no word recently on its development. A Black Wall Street film helmed by Tim Story (director of Barbershop and Ride Along) is in the works, but doesn’t yet have any actors attached (the film’s producers did not respond to requests for comment).

“People have good intentions, but once they get back to Hollywood and they talk to others and they really think about it, they decide against it,” says the Greenwood Cultural Center’s Brown, who met with Oprah’s writing team when they were in Tulsa. “I can’t believe we’ve received national attention since 1996, and here we are, 2018, and still no major production has been done.”

Jackson is hopeful that Get Lifted’s effort will finally bring a Black Wall Street story to the masses. The show is in development for another network (he declined to say which), and there are hopes that it will land a full series order in the coming weeks. “If we’re fortunate enough to make it to air, I think it’s just another opportunity, similar to Underground, for audiences to learn about our history and our stories,” he says. “I definitely see there being an opportunity to tell more positive, uplifting stories that highlight the brown or black experience.”

Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress)

It was not fire that permanently hobbled Black Wall Street, but concrete. Today an interstate overpass bisects Greenwood Avenue, separating what was once the core of the business district from the rest of the neighborhood. Urban renewal projects in the 1960s and ’70s transformed inner-city neighborhoods around the country, morphing them from self-contained communities to haphazard highway exits. On the southern side of the overpass, just half a block of the former Black Wall Street structures remain, filled with a few small black-owned businesses — a hair salon, a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood chamber of commerce that was closed every time I tried to visit. To the north is an Oklahoma State University campus and just west is the Drillers stadium, institutions that benefit Tulsa broadly but not black Tulsa specifically.

Tulsans are now trying to use the highway to keep the spirit of Black Wall Street alive. On June 1, local officials held a dedication ceremony for a new mural painted on the side of the overpass, in the parking lot of the Greenwood Cultural Center. The mural, which spells out “Black Wall St” in a cartoony, bubbly font, tells a different story in each of its letters. The “B” depicts a beloved movie theater that was burned down during the attack, and the “L” a cross from a church that still sits across the street. Dozens of people snapped photos of the colorful project; officials hope it will become a popular Instagram attraction.

I was surprised, the day before the mural unveiling, to find a bearded white man sweating over its final details. Perched in an orange lift platform and clutching a spray can, he added the final flourishes to a musician holding a guitar in the letter “A.” He was Scribe, a Kansas City graffiti artist who regularly does public works projects. He’s not a native of Greenwood, nor of Tulsa. But Black Wall Street, despite its inspirational story of black uplift, has always been defined by its relationship to white people.

The district declined in part because of urban renewal but also because integration laws passed in the 1960s allowed blacks to spend their dollars elsewhere in Tulsa. Black people with means could choose to live in other parts of the city. Racial solidarity became a personal choice rather than a necessity dictated by white political rule. “Black folks thrived in a way because we were concentrated in a particular area,” says Regina Goodwin, who grew up in Greenwood and now serves as the only black woman in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. “There was a boatload of talent right in that area, so you saw pilots of planes, you saw hotel owners, newspaper editors. … There was an intent to be well and to do well.”

At the same time, white businesses have begun encroaching on what used to be an all-black space. Greenwood lies just east of Tulsa Arts District, the city’s revitalized downtown commercial square with the requisite Brooklyn-in-a-box coffee shops, boutique stores, and ramen restaurants. Now Greenwood Avenue itself is home to a gourmet burger joint, a SoulCycle-like exercise studio, and a luxury apartment building that lists its proximity to Trader Joe’s as a perk on its website (that grocery store is actually in South Tulsa — large portions of North Tulsa are food deserts). Fire-wielding rioters weren’t able to destroy Greenwood, but the gears of capitalism just might.

With the physical Black Wall Street slowly being eclipsed by modern businesses with no ties to its heritage, preserving the story of the district — and determining who gets to tell that story — becomes all the more important. Watkins, the Tulsa native directing the local play with the black cast, is white. So is Corinda Marsh, whose novel Holocaust in the Homeland was optioned for the film that Tim Story is directing. It’s not unusual for white artists to shape black historical narratives — Marsh told me she wants the movie based on her book to be “as strong as Gone With the Wind” — but the practice has been met with more pushback in recent years. When HBO announced that Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were making Confederate, a show about an alternate reality in which the South won the Civil War and slavery is still legal, critics dismissed the concept as “white nonsense” (earlier this year Deadline reported that the show is “unlikely” to be completed; an HBO spokesperson says it is still in development). Questions concerning cultural appropriation and narrative ownership dominate the discourse over art and entertainment in ways they never have before.

Watkins says she weighed whether she ought to be doing a play centered on the black experience, and asked people in Tulsa’s black community whether they thought it was appropriate. “If everybody had said we’re not comfortable with this, I would have walked away,” she says. “I had several people who I met with individually … who said to me, ‘Well, you can’t help your color, we can’t help your color, but we’d love for someone to do something. So if it’s you, it’s you.’”

Marsh learned about the burning of Black Wall Street at dinner with an acquaintance and conducted research for her novel on the internet. She’s never been to Tulsa but said she wrote her book to inspire compassion for the massacre victims. “I actually took my picture off the back of the book because I was getting some flak about being white and writing about this,” she says. “I wrote it with the idea that I wanted people to get to know the people of Greenwood. I studied the people there long enough to feel like I knew their personalities.”

Some black Tulsans see an irony in white people rushing to tell the story of Greenwood when factual accounts of the massacre from white perpetrators or observers remain slim. “We don’t have the family coming forward saying, ‘My family was in the KKK and we know we strung up some people over here,’” says Adams-Harris, the Big Mama Speaks performer. “I’m not impressed by other people continuing to want to tell the African American or Native stories through their lens. … I want to know why whites riot. Because when they riot, I know they kill my people.”

Jackson, the Get Lifted producer, argues that it’s people’s common humanity that drives engaging stories and that talented artists have the creative capacity to step into a different person’s shoes. “I think storytellers are storytellers,” he says. “I would love for people of color to write stories about people of color. When it comes to our experience, I think someone who walks around in that skin probably has a stronger perspective on what that means. But I would never say that someone who’s not a person of color couldn’t effectively and successfully tell our story.”

All photos by Victor Luckerson

For those who are aware of it, Black Wall Street has become a powerful national symbol, popping up everywhere from fundraising events in Atlanta to record labels launched in Compton. But it’s still a physical place in a city with a large income disparity between whites and blacks, an entertainment district that was named after a Ku Klux Klan member until 2017, and a string of killings of unarmed black men by police officers. At the mural unveiling I talked to Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was shot and killed by a police officer on a Tulsa road in 2016. “That same culture that burned down Black Wall Street is the same culture that killed my brother, that killed Eric Harris, that killed Jeremy Lake right here in this city,” she says.

Tulsa’s government is hoping to use the impending 100-year anniversary of the massacre as an opportunity to address some of its problems. A centennial commission, spearheaded by state Senator Kevin Matthews, has launched a number of cultural and economic initiatives tied to Greenwood. This fall, Tulsa Public Schools are expected to adopt a standard curriculum developed by the commission that teaches students about the history of the massacre. Eventually Matthews hopes the lessons will be taught statewide. The commission is also seeking $3 million in private donations for a business development program in North Tulsa, which would provide seed funding to residents with plans to launch businesses in the area.

“Land and business ownership, entrepreneurship, and economic development [are] going to garner us more ability to leverage our political, spiritual, and financial capital in relation to civil rights,” Matthews says. “We can’t just march. We also have to have the finances to address issues if we’re going to be effective in the United States.”

And yet on a fundamental level, the burning of Greenwood remains an unpaid debt. Despite a legal battle that wound its way to the Supreme Court last decade, the city and state governments have not paid reparations to the survivors of the 1921 attack or their families (a scholarship fund for 300 descendants of riot survivors was set up in 2001). The centennial commission’s economic development program will be funded by prominent nonprofits and corporations in Oklahoma, not taxpayers. There’s still a sense that black Tulsans should be happy with what they are given, rather than be indignant about what they are owed.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that simply telling a story again and again could help right this wrong. But it’s only because of survivors’ stories, collected beginning in the days after the attack and continuing to this year’s anniversary, that we know what happened in Greenwood at all. Brown, as part of her job at the Greenwood Cultural Center, has been interviewing survivors of the massacre for more than 20 years. In 1996, the year she started there, the organization identified 162 survivors. In a room off to the side of the center’s main Black Wall Street exhibit, glossy black-and-white photographs of Greenwood residents, now aged and somber, are placed above their recollections of the event that upended their childhoods. “The riot cheated us out of our childhood innocence,” said Beulah Loree Keenan Smith, born in 1908. “My mother lost everything she owned,” said Thelma Thurman Knight, born in 1915. “That riot was like a first ‘war experience’ for me,” said World War II veteran Joe Burns, born in 1917.

The research into exactly what happened that night in Tulsa is ongoing — the week I visited, Brown was going out to interview a previously unidentified person who had lived through the horror of 1921. “My real love is telling the history,” she says. “I simply do it to honor those survivors, knowing what they went through.”

She remembers taking a group of survivors to Oklahoma City in 2001, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was determining whether victims should be compensated. Much of the media coverage of the time fixated on how much money the survivors might get, but some of Greenwood’s residents had a perspective that stuck with her. “Of course we believe reparations are due for everything that our families lost — their homes, their businesses, their lives even,” she recalls them saying to a gaggle of reporters. “But what we want more than anything is for our children to finally know that there’s more to our history than slavery and the civil rights movement. We want them to know that we were savvy business owners. That we were successful.”

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