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Cultural Connection: Black Wall Street

Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As one of the most successful and wealthiest African American communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, it was popularly known as America's "Black Wall Street" until the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The invasion was one of the most devastating massacres in the history of US race relations, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.

Within five years after the massacre, surviving residents who chose to remain in Tulsa rebuilt much of the district. They accomplished this despite the opposition of many white Tulsa political and business leaders. It resumed being a vital black community until segregation was overturned by the Federal Government during the 1950s and 1960s. Desegregation encouraged blacks to live and shop elsewhere in the city, causing Greenwood to lose much of its original vitality. Since then, city leaders have attempted to encourage other economic development activity nearby.

THE ROOTS
Many black Americans moved to Oklahoma in the years before and after 1907, which is the year Oklahoma became a state. Oklahoma represented change and provided a chance for black Americans to get away from slavery and the harsh racism of their previous homes. Most of them traveled from other states in the south where racism was very prevalent, and Oklahoma offered hope and provided all people with a chance to start over. They traveled to Oklahoma by wagons, horses, trains, and even on foot.

Many of the black Americans who traveled to Oklahoma had ancestors who could be traced back to Oklahoma. A lot of the settlers were relatives of black American slaves who had traveled on foot with the Five Civilized Tribes along the Trail of Tears. Others were the descendants of runaway slaves who had fled to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in an effort to escape lives of oppression. The Emancipation Proclamation freed all of these former slaves in 1863. Many who had been owned by the Creeks and Seminoles were adopted into those tribes. They were thus able to live freely in the Oklahoma Territory.

When Tulsa became a booming and rather well noted town in the United States, the residents and government attempted to leave out important aspects of the city. Many people considered Tulsa to be two separate cities rather than one city of united communities. The white residents of Tulsa referred to the area north of the Frisco railroad tracks as “Little Africa” and other derogatory names. This community later acquired the name Greenwood and by 1921 it was home to about 10,000 black American men, women, and children.

Greenwood was centered on a street known as Greenwood Avenue. This street was important because it ran north for over a mile from the Frisco Railroad yards, and it was one of the few streets that did not cross through both black and white neighborhoods. The citizens of Greenwood took pride in this fact because it was something they had all to themselves and did not have to share with the white community of Tulsa. Greenwood Avenue was home to the black American commercial district with many red brick buildings. These buildings belonged to black Americans and they were thriving businesses, including grocery stores, banks, libraries, and much more. Greenwood was one of the most affluent communities and it became known as “Black Wall Street.”

THE BLACK WALL STREET
During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood, which came to be known as "the Negro Wall Street" (now commonly referred to as "the Black Wall Street"). The area was home to several prominent black businessmen, many of them multimillionaires. Greenwood boasted a variety of thriving businesses that were very successful up until the Tulsa Race Riot. Not only did black Americans want to contribute to the success of their own shops, but also the racial segregation laws prevented them from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood. Following the genocide, the area was rebuilt and thrived until the 1960s when desegregation allowed blacks to shop in areas that were restricted before.

Detroit Avenue, along the edge of Standpipe Hill, contained a number of higher-end houses belonging to doctors, lawyers and business owners. Also, the buildings on Greenwood Avenue housed the offices of almost all of Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors, doctors, and other professionals. In Tulsa at the time of the genocide, there were fifteen well-known black American physicians, one of whom, Dr. A.C. Jackson, was considered the “most able Negro surgeon in America” by one of the Mayo brothers. Dr. Jackson was shot to death as he left his house during the mass genocide. Greenwood published two newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun, which covered not only Tulsa, but also state and national news and elections. Buildings housing the two papers were destroyed during the destruction of Greenwood better known as "Black Wall Street".

Greenwood was a very religiously active community. At the time of the racial mass genocide there were more than a dozen black American churches and many Christian youth organizations and religious societies.

In northeastern Oklahoma, as elsewhere in America, the prosperity of minorities emerged amidst racial and political tension. The Ku Klux Klan made its first major appearance in Oklahoma shortly before the worst race riot in history. It is estimated that there were about 3,200 members of the Klan in Tulsa in 1921.

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