Open main menu

Greenwood is a historic freedom colony in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As one of the most prominent concentrations of African-American businesses 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, in which white residents massacred as many as 300 black residents, injuring hundreds more, and razed the neighborhood within hours. The riot was one of the most devastating massacres in the history of U.S. race relations, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.

Greenwood, Tulsa
Black Wall Street
Greenwood, Tulsa is located in Oklahoma
Greenwood, Tulsa
Greenwood, Tulsa
Location in Oklahoma
Coordinates: 36°09′42″N 95°59′12″W / 36.16166°N 95.98660°W / 36.16166; -95.98660Coordinates: 36°09′42″N 95°59′12″W / 36.16166°N 95.98660°W / 36.16166; -95.98660
CountryUnited States
CountyTulsa County

Within ten 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 and punitive rezoning laws enacted to prevent reconstruction. 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.



Many African-Americans began moving to Oklahoma for the land rushes 1889 through 1891 and continued in the years leading to 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state, hoping that a majority black population could build a firewall against further extension of the system of racial degradation and segregation known as Jim Crow. Oklahoma represented the hope of change and provided a chance for African Americans to not only leave the lands of slavery but oppose the harsh racism of their previous homes.[1] Travelling from other states Oklahoma seemed to offer these people a chance to start over. They travelled 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. Many of the settlers were relatives of Native Americans who had traveled on foot with the Five Civilized Tribes along the Trail of Tears. Others were the descendants of people who had fled to Native American Territory. Many Black residents were also from the various Muskogee speaking peoples, such as Creeks, Seminoles, and the Yuchi, while some had been adopted by the tribe after the Emancipation Proclamation. They were thus able to live freely in the Oklahoma Territory.[2]

When Tulsa became a booming and rather well-known town in the United States, 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". The success there led Booker T. Washington to visit in 1905 during which he encouraged them to continue to build and co-operate among themselves, reinforcing what he called "industrial capacity" and thus securing their ownership and independence.[3] Washington highlighted that he had directed the creation of a 4,000 acre totally black-owned district in Tuskegee under the direction of C. W. Greene and designated Greenwood when it was formally organized in 1901 to create a demonstration of his vision. The Tulsa community was formally organized in 1906 and took the name Greenwood. By 1921 it was home to about 10,000 black residents.[1]

Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa 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."

O.W. GurleyEdit

Around the start of the 20th century O.W. Gurley, a wealthy black landowner from Arkansas, came to what was then known as Indian Territory to participate in the Oklahoma Land run of 1889. The young entrepreneur had just resigned from a presidential appointment under president Grover Cleveland in order to strike out on his own."[4]

In 1906, Gurley moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he purchased 40 acres of land which was "only to be sold to colored".[4]

Among Gurley's first businesses was a rooming house which was located on a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. This road was given the name Greenwood Avenue, named for a city in Mississippi. The area became very popular among black migrants fleeing the oppression in Mississippi. They would find refuge in Gurley's building, as the racial persecution from the south was non-existent on Greenwood Avenue.

In addition to his rooming house, Gurley built three two-story buildings and five residences and bought an 80-acre (32 ha) farm in Rogers County. Gurley also founded what is today Vernon AME Church.[2]

This implementation of "colored" segregation set the Greenwood boundaries of separation that still exist: Pine Street to the North, Archer Street and the Frisco tracks to the South, Cincinnati Street on the West, and Lansing Street on the East.[2]

Another black American entrepreneur, J.B. Stradford, arrived in Tulsa in 1899. He believed that black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, worked together and supported each other's businesses. He bought large tracts of real estate in the northeastern part of Tulsa, which he had subdivided and sold exclusively to other blacks. Gurley and a number of other blacks soon followed suit. Stradford later built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood, where blacks could enjoy the amenities of the downtown hotels who served only whites. It was said to be the largest black-owned hotel in the United States.[2]

Gurley's prominence and wealth were short lived. In a matter of moments, he lost everything. During the race riot, The Gurley Hotel at 112 N. Greenwood, the street’s first commercial enterprise, valued at $55,000, was lost, and with it Brunswick Billiard Parlor and Dock Eastmand & Hughes Cafe. Gurley also owned a two-story building at 119 N. Greenwood. It housed Carter’s Barbershop, Hardy Rooms, a pool hall, and cigar store. All were reduced to ruins. By his account and court records, he lost nearly $200,000 in the 1921 race riot.[2]

Because of his leadership role in creating this self-sustaining exclusive black "enclave", it has been rumored that Gurley was lynched by a white mob and buried in an unmarked grave. However, according to the memoirs of Greenwood pioneer, B.C. Franklin,[5] Gurley left Greenwood for California. Whichever version is true, the founder of the most successful black community of his time drifted into obscurity and almost vanished from history. He was honored in a 2009 documentary film called, Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.[6]

Black Wall Street in flames, June 1, 1921

Black Wall StreetEdit

Greenwood Tulsa, also known as Black Wall Street, was one of the most commercially successful and affluent majority-African American communities in the United States. Booker T. Washington referred to the Greenwood neighborhood as “Negro Wall Street.”[7] Many Americans, including African-Americans, had moved to Oklahoma in hopes of gaining a shot at quick economic gains through the mining and oil industries. Even though blacks were only a small percentage of the overall population in Oklahoma, the percentage of African-Americans in Tulsa had significantly increased to around 12.3 percent during the oil boom. Many African-Americans had come from the Deep South and Kansas because of the opportunity to strike gold because of the rich oil fields. Even though Jim Crow Laws and other racially biased laws were in place to inhibit African-Americans from achieving economic mobility and social status, racial segregation helped African-Americans in Tulsa because Black Wall Street was one of the few neighborhoods where blacks were even allowed to gain and spend their money. During the Jim Crow era, African-Americans were not allowed to make purchases or services in predominantly white areas. In particular, Oklahoma was known to have some of the harshest and most unjust Jim Crow laws in the country as there were countless lynching parties in Oklahoma and “whipping parties,” which were social gatherings where white people would whip black people for entertainment purposes. This forced many blacks to spend their money where they would feel welcomed, which allowed the Greenwood community to flourish and prosper.

On Black Wall Street, there were African-American attorneys, real-estate agents, dentists, entrepreneurs, and doctors who offered their services in the neighborhood. One primary example of the black entrepreneurial spirit is illustrated in this example: J.B. Stradford. J.B. Stradford had graduated from Indiana University with a law degree and had moved to Greenwood to purchase various land vacancies in the area. After buying these vacant spaces, he would then sell them to African-American residents for redevelopment so that these empty spaces could be transformed into residential houses and profitable businesses. By 1921, Stradford had been considered one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the country as he owned numerous properties in Greenwood and even had his hotel named after him: Stratford Hotel.[8] In addition to Mr. Stradford, there were also investments and reinvestments into the community. One executive of the local YMCA recalled that there were several barbershops, several grocery stores, and even a funeral home service. Greenwood was known to be an active religious community as there were numerous black-owned churches, Christian youth services, and other religious organizations.

1921 massacreEdit

On May 30, 1921, a young African-American male and shoe shiner named Dick Rowland went to a restroom in Drexel’s Building, which was one of the few restrooms that African-Americans could have used. Sarah Page, a young white female, was currently on the elevator that Rowland was on. Next, many sources claimed that Page screamed, “RAPE” and then proceeded to run off. Page claimed that Rowland “sexually assaulted” her without any sufficient evidence.

For many news media sources in the area, this was the perfect opportunity to create a juicy storyline. The newspaper distributed a headline that said, “ To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Another headline read, “ Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In Elevator.”. These controversial headlines sparked outrage among the white residents in the Tulsa community. As a result, a massive crowd of mostly angry white men marched at the Tulsa Town Hall demanding that Rowland is lynched for the allegations. Soon afterwards, a group of fifty to seventy mostly black men arrived to provide support for the sheriff in protecting Rowland from the hostile white residents. J.B. Stradford and several other influential black residents began to create their counter-response to the angry white mob by offering their support to the white sheriff in protecting Rowland. After arriving, a verbal dispute broke out where a white resident threatened to take a black resident’s rifle by calling him several derogative words. After the black man refused, shots were fired, and one of America’s most violent race riots emerged.

According to first-hand sources, thousands of armed and hostile White residents surrounded Greenwood Tulsa and trapped the residents. Many of these angry protesters began to break into ammunition stores to secure bullets and others loaded weapons for their attacks. Law enforcement also supported the brutal attacks against the black residents by arresting several black residents during the scattered altercations around the community. In response to the large white mobs, the black residents began forming defense lines near the Frisco railroad lines, which served as the boundary between the segregated black and white communities in Tulsa and began to exchange fire with the organized white mobs. While this outburst of violence was occurring, Law enforcement officials had refused to halt the organized white mobs and even reportedly encouraged white residents to throw flamethrowers at the black residents. During the trial, one white resident claimed that a local law officer had said, “Go get a gun and go get a nigger.” Other white residents even boldly claimed that law officers had joined the angry white mob in breaking into windows and destroying property. Furthermore, it is also reported that the local Tulsa chapter of the National Guard had begun deploying aircraft over Black Wall Street and used this advantage to rain bullets on the residential houses of black residents.

After the initial attacks, many members of the organized mob began to loot from many of the businesses and residential houses located on Black Wall Street. After looting these properties, they destroyed the vast majority of the properties, which left the vast majority of Black Wall Street in destruction and flames.

By June 1, most of the race riot had come to an end. The vast majority of Black Wall Street residents were either murdered, fled from the city, or in custody by law officials. Because of concerns of African-Americans in surrounding communities plotting revenge and launching a counterattack, Tulsa officials required that black residents, who were still in custody, acquire a green card, which only was required if a white employer had promised to keep their employee inside. This policy continued into July as the remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots were required to keep their green cards to ensure that there were no more counterattacks.[9]

Foundation of resentmentEdit

When evaluating the prosperity of Black Wall Street, one angle to take into consideration is this perceived threat to the status quo and how this perceived threat may have eventually led Black Wall Street to its ultimate demise.[10] In the specific example of Greenwood, Oklahoma, this perceived economic threat led to the eventual downfall of Black Wall Street. For instance, many white residents felt intimidated by the growth and expansion of Black Wall Street. Not only was Greenwood, Tulsa expanding in population growth but it was also expanding its physical boundaries, which eventually collided with the boundaries of white residents. According to several newspapers and articles at the time, there were reports of hateful letters sent to prominent business leaders within Black Wall Street, which demanded that they stop overstepping their boundaries into the white segregated portion of Tulsa.[11] Paradoxically, the economic success and prosperity of Black Wall Street also contributed to its eventual downfall as white residents grew increasingly frustrated and anxious of the wealth of the Greenwood community. Although White Americans enacted acts of violence against blacks frequently in the early 20th century, there was no justification until an allegation surfaced about an African-American male allegedly “assaulting” a white woman.


Revitalization and preservation efforts in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in tourism initiatives and memorials. John Hope Franklin Greenwood Reconciliation Park and the Greenwood Cultural Center honor the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, although the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce plans a larger museum to be built with participation from the National Park Service.[12]

In 2008, Tulsa announced that it sought to move the city's minor league baseball team, the Tulsa Drillers, to a new stadium, now known as ONEOK Field to be constructed in the Greenwood District. The proposed development includes a hotel, baseball stadium, and an expanded mixed-use district.[13] Along with the new stadium, there will be extra development for the city blocks that surround the stadium. This project will bring Greenwood Historical District out front and center and attract not only tourists but also Tulsa residents to North Tulsa.

The legacy of Tulsa Race RiotsEdit

After the Tulsa Race Riots, many white residents had promised to rebuild after the massive destruction, but that did not come to fruition. Instead, many white residents attempted to profit off the destruction and exploit African-Americans by approaching them with offers to purchase their lands for extremely low prices. Some residents attempted to sue the city legally and filed insurance claims against the city government for , but all of those claims were denied by the city government. People within the African-American community after the Tulsa Race Riot rarely discussed the historical significance of Greenwood after the Tulsa Race Riots because of fear that it may occur again.

In 1997, a commission was established to examine recommendations to compensate and support the descendants of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. In 2001, a final report was released that highly recommended that victims’ descendants receive full reparations. Alfred Brophy, an American legal scholar, outlined four specific reasons why survivors and their descendants should receive full compensation: the damage affected African-American families, the city was culpable, and city leaders acknowledged that they had a moral responsibility to help rebuild the infrastructure after the race riot.[14]

Historic statusEdit

The Greenwood Historical District comprises an area bounded by the Crosstown Expressway (I-244) on the north, Elgin Avenue on the west, Greenwood Avenue on the east and the Frisco tracks on the south.[15]

The City of Tulsa submitted an application to the U.S. Department of the Interior, for the "Greenwood Historic District" on September 29, 2011. On August 8, 2012, the Coordinator of the National Register Program wrote the Tulsa Preservation Commission that the proposed District would be renamed as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.[16] As of November 2014, the proposed Historic District had not been implemented.


Greenwood Cultural CenterEdit

Greenwood Cultural Center

The Greenwood Cultural Center, dedicated on October 22, 1995, was created as a tribute to Greenwood's history and as a symbol of hope for the community's future.[17] The center has a museum, an African American art gallery, a large banquet hall, and housed the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame until 2007. The total cost of the center was almost $3 million.[18] The cultural center is a very important part of the reconstruction and unity of the Greenwood Historical District.

The Greenwood Cultural Center sponsors and promotes education and cultural events preserving African American heritage. It also provides positive images of North Tulsa to the community, attracting a wide variety of visitors, not only to the center itself, but also to the city of Tulsa as a whole.[19]

In 2011, the Greenwood Cultural Center lost all funding from the State of Oklahoma. As a result, the center may be forced to close its doors.[20] A fundraising campaign is now underway to try to raise private funds to keep the educational and cultural facility open.[citation needed]

John Hope Franklin Reconciliation ParkEdit

Ground was broken in 2008 at 415 North Detroit Avenue for a proposed Reconciliation Park to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. John Hope Franklin, son of B. C. Franklin and a notable historian, attended the groundbreaking ceremony. After his death in 2009, the park was renamed John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. Attractions include two sculptures and a dozen bronze informational plaques. It is a park primarily designed for education and reflection, and does not contain facilities for sports or other recreation.

Originally funded by the State of Oklahoma, City of Tulsa and private donors, it is now owned by the city and managed by the non-profit corporation, John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Black Wall Street Tulsa's Successful History". Archived from the original on October 26, 2008. Retrieved November 13, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, Houghton Mifflin (2002) ISBN 0-618-10813-0
  3. ^ Booker T. Washington Builder of a Civilization Emmet J. Scott and Lyman B. Stowe Doubleday, Page & Company (1916) cf. Chapter Eight Booker Washington and the Negro Businessman
  4. ^ a b Lori Latrice Sykes, Making the System Work for You: The Alexander Norton Story, M&B Visionaries (2008) ISBN 0-615-19355-2
  5. ^ John Hope Franklin and John Whittington Franklin, eds., My Life and an Era, the Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, Louisiana State University Press (1998) ISBN 0-8071-2213-0
  6. ^ Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.
  7. ^ Messer, Chris M.; Shriver, Thomas E.; Adams, Alison E. (2018). "The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa's 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 77 (3–4): 789–819. doi:10.1111/ajes.12225. ISSN 1536-7150.
  8. ^ Messer, Chris M.; Shriver, Thomas E.; Adams, Alison E. (2018). "The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa's 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 77 (3–4): 789–819. doi:10.1111/ajes.12225. ISSN 1536-7150.
  9. ^ Messer, Chris M.; Shriver, Thomas E.; Adams, Alison E. (2018). "The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa's 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 77 (3–4): 789–819. doi:10.1111/ajes.12225. ISSN 1536-7150.
  10. ^ Messer, Chris M.; Shriver, Thomas E.; Adams, Alison E. (2018). "The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa's 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 77 (3–4): 789–819. doi:10.1111/ajes.12225. ISSN 1536-7150.
  11. ^ Messer, Chris M.; Shriver, Thomas E.; Adams, Alison E. (2018). "The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa's 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 77 (3–4): 789–819. doi:10.1111/ajes.12225. ISSN 1536-7150.
  12. ^ Lassek, P.J. (October 24, 2007). "Race riot memorial: Councilors might back efforts for designation". Tulsa World. Archived from the original on 12 October 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  13. ^ Lassek, P.J. (June 25, 2008). "Tulsa Drillers stadium coming downtown to Greenwood District". Tulsa World. Archived from the original on 7 October 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  14. ^ Messer, Chris M.; Shriver, Thomas E.; Adams, Alison E. (2018). "The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa's 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 77 (3–4): 789–819. doi:10.1111/ajes.12225. ISSN 1536-7150.
  15. ^ "Greenwood Historical District neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma (OK), 74120 detailed profile."
  16. ^ "Naming of Historic District." U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2014.
  17. ^ Greenwood Cultural Center
  18. ^ "Ruins to Renaissance", Tulsa World (October 15, 1995)
  19. ^ Hannibal B. Johnson, " Greenwood District." Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Retrieved April 19, 2015.
  20. ^ America's Black Holocaust Museum. On this date in history, May 31, 1921: The Tulsa Race Riot." Archived November 25, 2015, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved April 19, 2015.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit