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.”

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