“More than a Footnote”

Race and wealth in America have always been tied together. For African Americans, this has been a fact that we are bluntly introduced to early on in life, for others it is merely a part of a historical footnote, one that is often overlooked. One of those overlooked footnotes happens to be my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. To call it a historical footnote is not hyperbole. 

What Happened on Black Wall Street in 1921

In 1921 a white mob burned and bombed the nation’s wealthiest Black neighborhood killing an estimated 300 Black people, leaving 9,000 people homeless, destroyed 1,200 businesses and causing between $50-$100 million in property damage all in 24 hours. 

The attack was a result of what happened between two teenagers in an elevator on May 30th. A Black man named Dick Rowland a shoeshiner, and Sarah Page a white elevator operator. The most commonly cited explanation is that Rowland tripped and stepped on her foot after the doors closed which caused Page to scream. The next day Rowland was arrested and brought to the courthouse in downtown Tulsa. That afternoon the Tulsa Tribune published an article about the event with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl.”

Due to the article, a white mob of nearly 1,500 began gathering at the courthouse and making death threats. In an effort to protect Rowland a small group of black men, about 75 also gathered at the courthouse. Among the groups, a white man attempted to grab a black man’s gun and one shot was fired. What followed would linger in Tulsa for nearly 100 years.

What Do You Know About Tulsa, 1921?  

While I was born and raised in Tulsa, the destruction of Black Wall Street was only discussed once in the classroom. For me, it was in the sixth grade. I didn’t hear about it again until I attended an HBCU six years later. But the entire world is still in the process of learning what exactly happened and to what lengths white Tulsans did to cover up what happened between May 31, 1921, and June 1, 1921. 

Thanks to HBO’s The Watchmen and years of unanswered questions we are all learning about the scale of the structural and economic racism that occurred. Records went missing from city files, including the original Tulsa Tribune article that instigated the event.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the Tulsa Race Massacre was required as an Oklahoma history topic and it wasn’t in the history books until 2009 according to the Oklahoma Department of Education. That’s some 88 years after the event.

Even the term “Tulsa Race Massacre” is relatively new. Growing up it was always referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot.”  In 2001 the state put together a commission to study the event; it was called the “Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” We now know that the term riot was used to deny insurance payments to Black residents despite the fact that there were at least 6 airplanes used to drop explosives in the attack. The Tulsa City Commission also passed a fire ordinance to block building on any land that was burned.

Long-Lasting Impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Between the insurance companies and the city government, Black Tulsans were effectively blocked from rebuilding their community and wealth to the level they had enjoyed prior to the attack.

Among the 1,200 businesses that were destroyed, there were 30 black-owned grocery stores and three hotels. In 2020, Black Tulsans still haven’t gotten back to this high water mark. Today there are no hospitals and much of Greenwood and the surrounding areas with a majority Black population is considered a food desert. This, in some ways, contributes to the fact that Black residents have a life span that is 12 years shorter than white residents in Tulsa today.  

Wealth in the United States isn’t built solely on hard work, discipline and a good sense of financial literacy. It is also supported by a network of tax laws, access to capital, real estate education and yes, race. Just as laws were passed to prevent Black Tulsans from rebuilding, throughout the country African Americans were left out of wealth-building initiatives such as the GI Bill or targeted in the case of redlining. While African American unemployment is at a record low, Black families are not paid at the same levels and still have 6.5 times less wealth than white families. It would take more than 250 years for Black families just to have 90% of the wealth that white families have.

To truly rebuild Black Wall Street it will take a coordinated and targeted effort to reverse the centuries of policies that were put in place to stunt the progress of an entire race. It is time to recognize that race and wealth are more than just a footnote.

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