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Black History Month: The Burning and Collapse of Black Wall Street

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JB StradfordJ.B. Stradford, lawyer, businessman, and son of a freed Kentucky slave, is a major developer of the Tulsa’s African-American community of Greenwood in the 1900s. He owns the 65-room hotel located in the center of the thriving community that will later become known as “the Black Wall Street,” the wealthiest black community in the United States at the time. Most black Tulsans work as laborers and domestics, but a substantial number are teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals:

The Catalyst: Dick Rowland and Sarah Page

All goes well for the affluent community until 1921, when the arrest of a young black man, Dick Rowland, on a suspicious charge of assaulting a young white woman, Sarah Page, sparks what will be called by some as the “deadliest non-military domestic terrorist act in U.S. history,” the Tulsa Race Riot.

Black Wall Street Burned to GroundAccording to Wikipedia, Rowland was born in 1902. He drops out of high school to accept a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor on Main Street in downtown Tulsa. Because Tulsa is a segregated city ruled by Jim Crow, black people are prohibited from using whites-only toilet facilities. There are no separate facility for blacks at the shine parlor; the owner has arranged for black employees to use a “Colored” restroom on the top floor of the nearby Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. On May 30, 1921, Rowland attempts to enter the Drexel building elevator and, although the exact facts are either unknown or in dispute, according to the most accepted accounts, he trips, and while falling, latches on to the arm of the elevator operator, 17-year-old Sarah Page. Startled, she screams, and a white clerk in a first floor store calls police and reports seeing Rowland flee from the elevator and the building. The clerk reports the incident as an attempted assault. Almost nothing is known of Sarah Page. Originally described as a 17-year-old orphan working her way through business college, she may be as young as 15 and has come to Tulsa from Kansas City while waiting for a divorce to be finalized.

The case against Dick Rowland will be eventually dismissed at the end of September 1921, following the receipt of Sarah Page’s letter by the County Attorney, in which she will state that she does not want to prosecute the case.

Once Rowland is exonerated he immediately leaves Tulsa and resettles in Kansas City. Little else is publicly known about the remainder of his life.

Greenwood, the once flourishing model community, is destroyed, and with it a major African-American economic movement. Among the devastated are 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half-dozen private airplanes and even a bus system. The Tulsa race riot of 1921, like so many events in the chronological record of black people, is rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private before 1996. Though blacks and whites alike enter middle age unaware of what has taken of the Tulsa Race Riot, in 1996 the Oklahoma state legislature commissions a report on the event, and in 2001 it’s completed and finally establishes the historical record.

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Here’s the story of Greenwood, Oklahoma:

Charges against Rowland made the front page of the Tulsa Tribune, along with an editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

Black Wall Street NabNegro_Tulsa-paper

Moments before dawn on June 1, a mob of nearly 10,000 white men launch an assault on the Greenwood District and systematically burn every home and business to the ground. They drop firebombs and shoot at blacks from planes that have been used in World War I. CITE SOURCE HERE Local police and National Guard units hold captured black citizens in internment camps around the city, and martial law is eventually declared. During the 16-hour assault, more than 800 people are admitted to local hospitals, and more than 6,000 Greenwood residents are arrested and detained. An estimated 10,000 blacks are left homeless, 35 city blocks of 1,256 residences are destroyed by fire, and 36 businesses are destroyed. According to the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics, the official count of the dead is 39, but other estimates of black fatalities will be estimated at 300. Many black Americans are buried in unmarked graves around town, and others in an anonymous section of Tulsa’s Oak Lawn cemetery. Some photographers turn their photos of the dead into postcards. After the riot, black Tulsans live in tents and are forced to wear green identification tags in order to work downtown.

Black Wall street Newspaper

J.B. Stradford and 69 other black men are charged with inciting the riot, but Stradford jumps bail and flees to Kentucky. J.B. Stradford’s son, who is also a lawyer, uses legal strategies to help his father avoid standing trial, including filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to keep him from being unlawfully detained.’

Stradford never returns to Oklahoma but goes on to run a successful law practice in Chicago; however, charges hang over him until he dies. The Stradford family fights to clear his name, and it isn’t until 1996 — 75 years after the riot, six decades after his death — that he’s cleared of all charges. None of the other men indicted are convicted, either. “For years, silence engulfed this incident,” says Hannibal B. Johnson, author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood. “In 1921, Tulsa was booming, so anything that would detract from its allure, such as the riot, was minimized.”

In spite of their situation, they will manage to rebuild Greenwood without help from the state, and by 1942, the community will establish more than 240 black-owned businesses.

Black Wall Street MemorialFrom 1997 to 2001, an Oklahoma state commission conducts an investigation of the riot, questioning survivors about that day back in 1921. The commission recommends specific reparations to the community, the living survivors, and their descendants. The state does subsequently enact a law in June 2001 that provides about 300 scholarships for descendants, that develops a memorial park, and pushes for development in Greenwood — but the law falls far short of what the commission has recommended.

The remaining survivors continue to fight for further restitution, which is addressed in the 2008 documentary Before They Die!

Other Sources:

Report, Tulsa Race Riot Disaster. American Red Cross. Tulsa Area Chapter. – Tulsa City-County Library

Reconstructing the Dreamland By Alfred Brophy

Tulsa: Tale of Two Cities by Dorothy Moses DeWitty – Tulsa City-County Library

Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Dr. Scott Ellsworth

Tulsa Riot books from Eddie Faye Gates

The Tulsa Race War of 1921 by R. Halliburton, Jr.- Tulsa City-County Library

Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy By James S. Hirsch

1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the American Red Cross, – Angels of Mercy by Bob Hower

Black Wall Street by Hannibal B. Johnson

The Burning By Tim Madigan

Charles Barrett, “Oklahoma After Fifty Years”

Scott Ellsworth, “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921”

Mary Jones Parrish, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster”

Books on the Tulsa Race Riot at the Tulsa City-County Library

NEXT POST FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH:  Giving Bayard Rustin His Due

About Amirh

Ever-evolving spirit moving about via body. I'm a writer and a an ever-evolving spirit in service of animals through my blog and Buddhist and Reiki practices. My blogs: AllCreaturesLargeAndSmall.wordpress.com. and AmirhBahati.wordpress.com. For more about me: http://amirhbahati.wordpress.com/about/

2 responses to “Black History Month: The Burning and Collapse of Black Wall Street

  1. Ray's Mom

    Good history here. Being born and raised in the south on a working farm, I can remember my father bringing the field workers to our house for the mid-day meal during harvest. My mother would cook for everyone and made sure everyone was well fed.

    In the history of our family there are many slave owners. Not that I am proud of that fact – but when I discovered the will of my G-G grandfather, he made mention of a slave boy who was to be educated and freed when he was 18.

    My sister and I researched our family through many archives and it is amazing the history that one finds.

    I enjoy your site.
    God bless.

    • Amirh

      Thank you for your interesting and personal comment. Digging around in history is like digging around in an old chest in the attic (or basement). You never know what you might find, but whatever it is, it’s always interesting!

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