A Conspiracy of Silence

by J. Kavin Ross


The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 made national headlines on June 1 of this year, its 90th anniversary. Tulsa quietly commemorated the worst civil unrest on American soil since the Civil War with a candlelight vigil. A program titled “Greenwood Burned,” located in the historic district, was poorly attended. The three- day conference of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Symposium included no riot survivors.

In the scorching summer of 1921, nearly 40 blocks of the black community of Greenwood were burned to the ground by a white mob. Thousands of Tulsans were forever affected by the destruction. Hundreds of lives were lost and many homes and businesses were destroyed. As the ashes cooled on America’s “Black Wall Street,” its citizens rebuilt Greenwood without the promised funds owed to them. Tulsa County commissioners denied all moneys from outside sources, vowing to take care of its own citizens, but never following through on their promise. The first commission had made plans to provide reparations to the riot victims but was quickly disbanded and reformed. The second commission sought to move blacks out of Greenwood entirely.

For decades, the events from those atrocities were kept dormant, but were tightly whispered from the lips of those who dared to tell. The white community did not talk about race war because it left a stain on the fabric of the bustling oil capital. The black community did not talk about the massacre because those who committed the unpunished crime were still alive. Additionally, and unfortunately for the residents of Greenwood, the growth of Ku Klux Klan activity increased after the so-called riot.

In this environment, the conspiracy of silence was born.

In the 1830s, many African Americans journeyed to what would later be called Oklahoma, experiencing undesirable hardships along the Trail of Tears with the Five Civilized Tribes. Under President Andrew Jackson’s administration, the Indian Removal Act relocated the tribes and their slaves to the established Twin Territories.

Of the 32 black townships that were established in America after the civil war, 28 of them were in Oklahoma before it became a state. O.W. Gurley, one of Tulsa’s earliest pioneers, named the Greenwood district. An educator and entrepreneur who made his wealth as a landowner, Gurley purchased 40 acres in Tulsa to be sold to “coloreds only.” Senate Bill Number 1, the state’s first piece of legislation, prevented coloreds from residing, traveling and marrying outside their race. Gurley’s property lines were Pine Street to the north, the Frisco rail tracks to the south, Lansing Avenue to the east and Cincinnati Avenue to the west. The still-unpaved streets would also serve as Tulsa’s racial dividing lines.

After Gurley’s purchase of the land, Tulsa began to grow. Black ownership was unheard of at that time, but under the state’s Jim Crow laws, Greenwood was born out of necessity. The racial climate prevented coloreds from shopping anywhere but Greenwood. Among Gurley’s first businesses was a boarding house located on a dirt road crossing the Frisco tracks, which would later be named Greenwood Avenue.

By 1913, more businesses followed, including law and doctors’ offices of Buck Colbert Franklin and A.C. Jackson respectfully, Dunbar and Booker T. Washington schools, Vernon AME, and Mount Zion Baptist churches, Ricketts’ Restaurant, The Williams’ Dreamland Theater, Mann’s Grocery Stores, Stradford Hotel, and a host of haberdasheries, drug stores, cafes, barbershops and beauty salons.

Famed educator Booker Taliaferro Washington visited Tulsa for a dedication of a small school named in his honor. Upon visiting the business district of Greenwood, he was amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Greenwood residents. Washington would be credited for coining the phrase “the Negro Wall Street of America.” In the turbulent era of civil rights, the tag became “Black Wall Street.” The area thrived and was a source of pride in the black community—and a sore spot of envy across the tracks.

During the terrifying assault on Greenwood, many fled on foot, only to be rounded up and herded to internment camps around the city. Casualty counts varied; the dead were hastily buried in unmarked graves around the city. Funerals were forbidden. To date, the exact locations of the riot dead remain unconfirmed.

A now-legendary editorial in the June 4, 1921, editions of the Tulsa Tribune summed the up the sentiments of most Tulsans. “In this old Niggertown were a lot of bad niggers and a bad nigger is about the lowest thing that walks on two feet. Give a bad nigger his booze and his dope and a gun and he thinks he can shoot up the world. And all of these four things can be found in ‘Niggertown’—booze, dope, bad niggers and guns. The Tulsa Tribune make no apology to the police commissioners or to the mayor of this city for having pled with them to clean up the cesspools in this city.”

Through the heat of the summer and into winter’s harshness, the survivors of Greenwood lived in tents and wooden shanties supplied by the American Red Cross while the city sorted through the rubble. The county commissioners at that time proposed to buy the land pennies on the dollar and sell the scorched lands to the highest bidders. Tulsa’s power structure began to enforce various fire ordinances to prevent landowners from rebuilding. Those caught rebuilding would be arrested. Buck Colbert Franklin, father of noted historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, defended those arrested.

One such decree was that any new structure would have to be built from fireproof materials. The Acme Brick Company, located near the Booker T. Washington High School in the Greenwood District, was instructed not to sell its products, and nearby lumber yards also re- fused to sell to blacks. B. C. Franklin advised his clients to build with anything, even orange crates.

In an effort to expand the boundaries of downtown, the city proposed to move the Negro settlement further north and to the east of the Greenwood district. The county offered jobs to the now- unemployed black Tulsans. However, many refused to clean up the debris left by the mob. Commissioners Tate Brady, Jeff Archer, and others created another ordinance directly at the survivors: “Notice is hereby given that all men are ordered to either get a job and go to work or if you have no job work will be furnished you by applying at the Booker T. Washington Public School on Frankfort Street. All men who have no job and who refuse to work will be arrested as vagrants,” the report read. This action prompted Franklin to take the city powers all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, who sided with Franklin.

Riots were prevalent throughout the country during this era. In 1905, race riots occurred in Springfield, Illinois, the land of Lincoln, and 1919 was deemed the “red summer” for its outbreaks of race wars. Rosewood, a small rural community in Florida later depicted in a feature film, was destroyed in 1923. Each riot shared similarities: A white woman accused a black man of molestation. The white mob would react by terrorizing and destroying the black community.

Of all the uprisings, Greenwood is unique in that the razed community came back, bigger and better than before. Black residents of Greenwood during the 1940s and ’50s enjoyed a peaceful but separate coexistence with the rest of the city. Separated schools were built to the north and east of the Greenwood district, including the new Booker T. Washington High School. The former BTW that survived the riot became Charles S. Johnson Elementary, which two decades later would become among the demolished inventory of Urban Renewal. The former grounds of that original BTW are now the Tulsa campus of Oklahoma State University.

The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the 1960s allowed black dollars to be spent in white stores, and put a dent in the commerce and growth of the famed Black Wall Street. The end of an era began as Greenwood declined.

Once again, Greenwood was under attack. Not by the hands of an angry mob, but by the bulldozers of the federal government. Urban Renewal made it effects known Tulsa twenty years after the creation of the Housing Act and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of the 1950s. Highways divided neighborhoods and urban sprawl began. The removal of large populations of the city’s minority was commonplace throughout large cities across the nation.

Tulsa was the first metropolis in Oklahoma to create an urban renewal authority. Opting not to bulldoze blocks of homes, Tulsa cleared problem properties while rehabilitating others. Homes and businesses that were rebuilt after the riot were bought and torn down, and Interstate 244—renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway in the 1980s—plowed through the heart of the remaining Greenwood Business District.

The University Center at Tulsa and the Greenwood Cultural Center were built in its place. Only Mount Zion Baptist Church and Vernon AME Church withstood the test of time. Also left behind was one block of buildings left standing in hopes that one day the once thriving and vibrant Negro Wall Street of America would be recognized.

In the early 1970s, a group of brothers—Robert, Ronnie and Charlie Wilson—formed The Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band, by doing overtly what Senate Bill No. 1 had done deceitfully, the brothers sought to honor the boundaries of their neighborhood. Due to a lack of space on a poster, the promoter shortened the band’s name to The Gap Band. The group went on to produce a string of hits in the 1980s.

Here and elsewhere, people are acknowledging the legacy of Greenwood. Underway in the nation’s Capitol is the construction of a $500 million Smithsonian Institute Museum of African American History and Culture. The collection will include an exhibit titled, “Greenwood: Before, during and after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Museum officials have made numerous visits to Tulsa to retrieve information and artifacts for the exhibit.

In Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum is revamping its exhibits. At the Lorraine Motel—site of the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—a Greenwood exhibit will be among the highlights.

U.S. Representative John Sullivan (R) has authored a bill in the United States Congress to incorporate the Tulsa Race Riot Memorial/ John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park as a part of the inventory of the National Park Services. Also in progress is a grassroots effort to have the Greenwood district recognized on a National Preservation List of Historic Places.

With the creation of the new ONEOK Field, built on the former scorched lands of O.W. Gurley’s Greenwood, the historic district is breathing new life as more patrons walk the same sidewalks from Greenwood’s yesteryear. More construction in the area is planned in the future, including loft apartments.

In the spring of 2004, Bishop Desmond Tutu—who gained international attention for his role ending racial tensions and beginning the process of reconciliation in his homeland in South Africa—visited the former oil boomtown. “Tulsa is sitting on a powder keg. Because the city refuses to acknowledge and deal with its past,” Tutu said. He continued to state if Tulsa ever deals with its race relations, this magic city could become a jewel to the world.

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