Imagine a community of great possibilities and prosperity built by Black people for Black people. Places to work. Places to live. Places to learn and shop and play. Places to worship.
Now imagine it being ravaged by flames.
In May 1921, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood of Greenwood was a fully realized antidote to the racial oppression of the time. Built in the early part of the century in a northern pocket of the city, it was a thriving community of commerce and family life to its roughly 10,000 residents.
Brick and wood-frame homes dotted the landscape, along with blocks lined with grocery stores, hotels, nightclubs, billiard halls, theaters, doctor’s offices and churches.
Greenwood was so promising, so vibrant that it became home to what was known as America’s Black Wall Street. But what took years to build was erased in less than 24 hours by racial violence — sending the dead into mass graves and forever altering family trees.
Hundreds of Greenwood residents were brutally killed, their homes and businesses wiped out. They were casualties of a furious and heavily armed white mob of looters and arsonists. One factor that drove the violence: resentment toward the Black prosperity found in block after block of Greenwood.
The financial toll of the massacre is evident in the $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars — detailed in a 2001 state commission report. For two decades, the report has been one of the most comprehensive accounts to reveal the horrific details of the massacre — among the worst racial terror attacks in the nation’s history — as well as the government’s culpability.
The destruction of property is only one piece of the financial devastation that the massacre wrought. Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren.
“What if we had been allowed to maintain our family business?” asked Brenda Nails-Alford, who is in her early 60s.
The Greenwood Avenue shoe shop of her grandfather and his brother was destroyed.
“If they had been allowed to carry on that legacy,” she said, “there’s no telling where we could be now.”
The Marquee Block
Perhaps no other collection of businesses tells the story of Greenwood and Black entrepreneurship better than the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue, rising near the southern tip of the neighborhood. This marquee block was the pulse of the Black business community.
More than 70 businesses operated in mostly one-, two- and three-story red brick buildings clustered along the block. All but a couple were owned by Black entrepreneurs.
In this stretch alone, there were four hotels, two newspapers, eight doctors, seven barbers, nine restaurants and a half-dozen professional offices of real estate agents, dentists and lawyers. A cabaret and a cigar shop were on the block, too.
You could shop for groceries, play pool, take in a theater show, eat dinner or get your hair styled — without ever leaving the block.
“My grandfather often talked about how you could enjoy a full life in Greenwood, that everything you needed or wanted was in Greenwood. You never had to go anywhere,” said Star Williams, 40, granddaughter of Otis Grandville Clark, who was 18 during the massacre. “He talked about seeing Black success and how his sense of identity and pride came from Greenwood.”
The businesses on Greenwood Avenue were owned by people who were among Tulsa’s most prominent Black citizens.
A City Within a City
J.B. Stradford and O.W. Gurley — who purchased large tracts of land in the early 1900s — were among the founders of Greenwood. They began building on the northern side of Tulsa beyond the railroad tracks, forming the bones of the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood that was separate from the white side of town.
Greenwood was one of the few places in the country offering Black citizens — less than six decades out of enslavement — a three-dimensional life. By 1921, Greenwood had grown into a 35-block neighborhood with a bustling retail scene, as well as two schools, two newspapers and a hospital.
In the evenings, residents had their choice of entertainment. Survivor accounts that were relayed to relatives recall neighbors getting “gussied up” to gather in Greenwood, with Thursdays being big because of “Maids’ Night Out.” Black domestics, many of them live-in workers who cleaned the homes of white residents across town, were off that day.
Many African Americans migrated to Tulsa after the Civil War, carrying dreams of new chapters and the kind of freedom found in owning businesses. Others made a living working as maids, waiters, chauffeurs, shoeshiners and cooks for Tulsa’s new oil class.
In Greenwood, about 40% of residents were professionals or skilled craftspeople, like doctors, pharmacists, carpenters and hairdressers, according to a Times analysis of the 1920 census. While a vast majority of the neighborhood rented, many residents owned their homes.
Segregation kept African Americans from patronizing white-owned shops, and Greenwood thrived from community support of Black-owned businesses.
“Black folks faced an economic detour,” said Hannibal B. Johnson, an author and the education chair for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. “When they approached the gates to the wider Tulsa economy, they were turned away, so they ended up creating their own largely insular community.”
The assaults on Greenwood raged over two days. The morning of June 2, 1921, revealed emptiness and ruin in every direction.
Plumes of smoke hovered over the neighborhood. Ash coated the ground. Brick buildings had been reduced to bombed-out husks. And soon, the bodies of those killed would be stacked and discarded in mass graves and a river.
It all began May 30 with two teenagers in an elevator in the Drexel building in downtown Tulsa and morphed into a sexual assault accusation.
Accounts vary about what happened between Dick Rowland, 19, a young Black shoeshiner, and Sarah Page, 17, a white elevator operator. One common theory suggests that Rowland tripped and grabbed onto the arm of Page while trying to catch his fall. She screamed, and he ran away, according to the commission report.
The next day, Rowland was arrested and jailed in the Tulsa County Courthouse. By that afternoon, The Tulsa Tribune published a front-page news story with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” which essentially mobilized a lynch mob that showed up at the courthouse.
Twice, a group of armed Black Tulsans, many of them World War I veterans, offered to help protect Rowland but were turned away by the sheriff.
As the Black men were leaving the second time, a white man attempted to disarm a Black veteran, and a gun went off in the scuffle. That clash and others that day marked the beginning of what would become Greenwood’s armed destruction. Some white rioters were even deputized and given weapons by civil officials.
Near dawn, the white mob descended on Greenwood. Black Tulsans fought back, valiantly defending their families and property. But they were woefully outnumbered.
The mob indiscriminately shot Black people in the streets. Members of the mob ransacked homes, stole money and jewelry. They set fires, “house by house, block by block,” according to the commission report.
Terror came from the sky, too. White pilots flew airplanes that dropped dynamite over the neighborhood, the report stated, making the Tulsa aerial attack what historians call among the first of a U.S. city.
The numbers presented a staggering portrait of loss: 35 blocks burned to the ground; as many as 300 dead; hundreds injured; 8,000 to 10,000 left homeless; more than 1,470 homes burned or looted; and eventually, 6,000 detained in internment camps.
The neighborhood economy was destroyed. Two dozen grocery stores. Thirty-one restaurants. Four drugstores.
Greenwood, where Black success embodied the American dream, was no more, suddenly, dreadfully wiped out.
What Was Lost
Greenwood would be rebuilt, and for a few decades, it would again thrive before falling to urban renewal and other forces. But that spring of 1921 unmoored and unrooted the neighborhood with lasting effects.
Not long after the attack, shellshocked survivors — who were blamed for the violence — returned home to ruin. They were forced to make an excruciating decision that would change family histories forever: leave and start over again somewhere else, or rebuild.
They also faced another kind of white resistance: a fire ordinance intended to prevent Black property owners from rebuilding on their own and insurance companies that refused to pay damage claims.
“Greenwood is the story of resilience,” said Scott Ellsworth, author of the recently released book, “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.” “It is the story of courage.”
Those who stayed began stitching their lives back together almost immediately. They joined forces and began rebuilding homes and businesses. Within a day, C.L. Netherland, a massacre survivor and minister whose barber shop at 110 Greenwood Avenue was destroyed, purchased a folding chair, a strop and razor, and set up shop on a sidewalk.
The massacre also claimed Mount Zion Baptist Church, whose first service in its new building had been held less than two months earlier. The congregation had financed the $92,000 church over several years, according to “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” a book by Johnson. It would have been easier to declare bankruptcy. Instead, church members rebuilt and dug in. It took an additional 21 years before the initial debt was repaid.
The final insult of the massacre came in the silence. For decades, Tulsa deliberately ignored and covered up what had happened in Greenwood. Many descendants said they learned about the massacre only as adults — and even then, some of the recounting was told in whispers.
“You could see the pain in my grandmother’s eyes when she talked about what happened,” said LeRoy Gibbs II, 52, grandson of Ernestine Gibbs, a massacre survivor who was 17 when the violence unfolded. “Before she would get too far, before it became too painful, she would shift and start talking about where we are today.”
Some surviving business owners who built the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue had remarkable second chapters. Others, who struggled in the aftermath, had heartbreaking stories. The Williams family, among the most successful before the massacre, stayed and rebuilt.
A.J. Smitherman, a civil rights activist who ran The Tulsa Star, eventually landed in Buffalo, New York, where he became the publisher of The Buffalo Star (later named The Empire Star). He was among several Black Tulsans indicted on a charge of “inciting a riot” and was exonerated posthumously.
Mary E. Jones Parrish, a journalist who ran a typing school, stayed to chronicle the massacre. The two wealthy men who helped found Greenwood were hit hard financially. Stradford, who was indicted, escaped to Kansas and then Chicago. He never recovered his fortune. Gurley reportedly lost nearly $158,000 in 1921, or $2.3 million in today’s dollars.
James Nails, who had opened a shoe shop with his brother Henry, rebuilt but never really recovered. He eventually left Tulsa.
“He was really unable to carry on emotionally, psychologically,” Nails-Alford said. “You get your education, you work hard, you start businesses, you’re able to employ your family members and community members, and then you lose it all within hours. It takes away a man’s dignity.”
There is a pending lawsuit and ongoing discussions about how and whether to compensate the families of the Tulsa massacre victims. No compensation has ever been paid under court order or by legislation.
To this day, not one person has been prosecuted or punished for the devastation and ruin of the original Greenwood.