Many factors have influenced settlement patterns in Tulsa, but a difficult question persists: Why is Tulsa, fundamentally, a segregated city? There is no single answer to that question, but it is not simply an accident of demography.
In a manner of speaking, one of Tulsa’s earliest zoning laws was the city’s 1916 racial segregation ordinance, which provided that:
It shall be unlawful for any colored person to move into and occupy as a residence or place of abode, any house in any block situated within the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, upon which 75 per cent of the residents occupying said block are white people. It shall be unlawful for any colored person to establish and maintain a hotel, rooming house, or place of public assembly upon any block in or more said city upon which 75 per cent, of the residents, roomers, guests, or boarders in such block, are white persons.
The code also forbade “white people” from moving into “colored” zones. The ordinance provided an exception, however, to permit black servants to reside in quarters in white neighborhoods.
The “colored citizens of Tulsa in mass meeting assembled” filed a formal protest of the city’s segregation ordinance, but to no avail:
We hereby petition the honorable Mayor and City Commissioners that the said Ordinance be not published, and put into effect, to the end that the colored people of Tulsa and the race at large may be relieved of this great evil and injustice; and that the fair name of our peaceful city may be saved from this blot of shame and disgrace. (Attachment to City of Tulsa Ordinance No. 1547)
In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a similar Louisville, KY, ordinance unconstitutional.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot was a defining event in Tulsa’s history. Just 90 years ago—within a human life span—white residents of Tulsa burned the designated “colored” zone to cinders. In the riot’s aftermath, despite the conciliatory words, civic leaders cited the riot’s devastation as justification to try to claim Greenwood for white-owned industry, as illustrated in a 2001 article from the Tulsa World:
The Tulsa City Commission … less than a week after the riot, proposed to transform the devastated area into the site of a new railroad station, white-owned manufacturing plants and warehouses. ‘Let the Negro settlement be placed further to the north and east,’ Mayor Evans said. (Enacted) on June 7, … “Fire Ordinance No. 2156 extended a stringent fire code over most of the burned-out area, mandating that rebuilt buildings be constructed of concrete, brick, or steel, and be at least two stories high, requirements clearly prohibitive to most Negroes.”
This zoning law, too, was later declared unenforceable. Like all land-use ordinances, however, it was both a manifestation and an extension of much broader social and economic issues.
Ordinances courtesy of City of Tulsa archives. Photo courtesy of the Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society.