The Modern Day Legacy of the Devastation of Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street'

History is unfortunate proof that American capitalism essentially highlights the immense strength of the top 1%, while the lower classes suffer in silence

Trigger Warning: This article discusses matters of sexual assault, rape and racial violence. If you are sensitive to this topic, please exercise caution while reading.

Famously known as “Black Wall Street”, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the most prosperous areas inhabited predominantly by the African-American community in the early 1900s. On May 31st of 1921, the Tulsa Tribune alleged that a Black man, Dick Rowland, had attempted to sexually assault a white woman, Sarah Page, in the elevator of the Drexel Building in the town. The news headline catalyzed mass violence as the white people living in the town did not want a fair trial before judging his innocence, resulting in two days of tremendous brutality and mayhem. There were an estimated 300 deaths reported and approximately 1,000 severely injured, as people campaigned for defense of Sarah Page. However, the racial prejudice that the townsfolk harbored for Black people certainly played a role in shaping the purpose of the protest.

The survivors of the Tulsa massacre have reported various instances of violences, detailing the extensive damage that was left behind by the kerosene and nitroglycerin used to burn the community. Even more disturbing, however, is the aftermath of the violence. The victims of the white terrorism did not receive the compensation they were supposed to receive as per guidelines of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition. The commission proposed “the establishment of a scholarship fund—that did happen, for a limited time”. The measures suggested for economic rehabilitation of Tulsa were not paid heed to by the authorities.

While every individual has been deeply sympathetic towards Sarah Page, exploiting her vulnerability to condone racial violence should never be supported. Sociologist Chris Messer has stated that due to migration and employment opportunities, Tulsa was a region that had the largest number of economically stable Black Americans during that time period. Tulsa’s rapid change in racial trends triggered riots motivated by white animosity against Black economic progress. As Messer stated, “Through maintenance of the legal separation of race in sociality, business, education, and residential areas, the structure of segregation encouraged initiative, but also placed parameters by restricting African-American opportunities”. 

It is believed that the self-sustaining Black business ventures threatened the majoritarian policy the white rulers had imposed on the lots. Black people who could no longer shop at the stores owned by white people started shopping at indigenous stores. Marginalization also limited Black people’s ability to be successful outside of their community. Sources have also blamed the ineffectiveness of the police force for the racial violence imparted towards Black people living in the region. Instead of establishing peace, they handed over guns to the white mobs who marched into the courthouse. Black people were arrested and questioned unlike the white townsfolk, evident of the skewed judiciary system.

Politicians and media framed the Black Tulsans as “lawless” individuals, indulging in alcoholism and drug rackets. The white townspeople oppressed the African-American community in Tulsa by “social control, including segregation, lynchings, and pogroms”, as stated by sociologist Messer. The media painted them as criminals and their demands for socio-economic justice were essentially discarded. The Tulsa World Paper heinously suggested that the Ku Klux Klan could restore order in society, fueling the flame of racial divide. 

History is proof that American capitalism essentially highlights the immense strength of the top 1%, while the lower classes suffer in silence. By the 1940s, the Greenwood District was rebuilt, but their prosperity never returned to its original height. As long as the higher income classes continue to be at the helm of power, we unfortunately can never have a rich and diverse community.

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