“The Rise and Fall”
I’m the author of the phenomenal novel “Just a Season” titled from the religious knowledge referring to a period of time characterized by a particular circumstance, suitable to an indefinite period of time associated with a divine phenomenon called life. During this passage through time I have come to realize that there are milestones, mountains, and valleys that we must encounter. This speaks loudly to the challenges of a proud people - African Americans.
“Black Wall Street” is the first in a series of articles intended to inspire, enlighten, empower, and share the history of a people at a time when the odds were against all odds. It was during a time called segregation, when Jim Crow ruled and separate but equal was the law of the land. Because of this de facto Apartheid like system African American were forced to live in communities dependent upon each other in order to survive and survive they did. Every town had such a place and during this series of articles I will visit those communities to sharing their rich histories.
In this, the first of the series, I will introduce you to the most infamous of them all - Tulsa Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street”. The name was fittingly given to the most affluent all-black community in America. This community was the epitome of success proving that African Americans had a successful infrastructure known as the golden door of the Black community during the early 1900’s. Although, it was in an unusual location Black Wall Street was a prime example of the typical Black community in America that did business far beyond expectations.
Let me explain, the state of Oklahoma was set aside to be a Black and Indian state that included over 28 Black townships. Another point worth noting, nearly a third of the people who traveled in the terrifying "Trail of Tears" alongside the Indians from 1830 to 1842 were Black people. The citizens of Oklahoma chose a Black governor; there were PhD’s, Black attorneys, doctors and professionals from all walks of life contributing to the successful development of this community. One such luminous figure was Dr. Berry who also owned the bus system generating an average income of $500 a day in 1910. During this time physicians owned medical schools to empower and develop African Americans.
The area encompassed 36 square blocks, over 600 businesses with a population of 15,000 African Americans. There were pawn shops everywhere, brothels, jewelry stores, churches, restaurants and movie theaters. Their success was monumentally evident in that the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, yet six blacks owned their own planes. Just to show how wealthy many Black people were, there was a banker in a neighboring town who had a wife named California Taylor. Her father owned the largest cotton gin west of the Mississippi. When California shopped, she would take a cruise to Paris every three months to have her clothes made.
There was also a man named Mason in nearby Wagner County who had the largest potato farm in the west. When he harvested, he would fill 100 boxcars a day. Another Black man not far away was doing the same thing with a spinach farm. The typical family averaged five children or more, though the typical farm family would have 10 kids or more who made up the nucleus of the labor.
What was significant about Black Wall Street was they understood an important principle - they kept the money in the community. The dollars circulated 36 to 1000 times within the community, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. Something the African America community of today does not fully appreciate or practice because a dollar will leave the Black community today in 15 minutes. This community was so tight and wealthy because they traded dollars hand-to-hand because they were dependent upon one another as a result of the Jim Crow laws.
Another powerful image, and extremely significant, was education. The foundation of the community was to educate every child because they understood that education is the single most important ingredient necessary to neutralize those forces that breed poverty and despair. When students went to school they wore a suit and tie because of the morals and respect they were taught at a young age. In addition, nepotism contributed greatly to the success of this community as a way to help one another – a tactic that needs to be instilled in our culture today.
A postscript to Tulsa’s legacy is the world renowned R&B music group the GAP Band. The group of brothers Charlie, Ronnie & Robert Wilson chose the group’s name taken from the first letters of the main thoroughfare Greenwood Avenue that intersects with Archer and Pine Streets; from those letters you get G.A.P. Another legendary figure from Tulsa is their favorite son, basketball great and jazz musician the late Wayman Tisdale. These are just a few luminaries that Tulsa has produced, surely the most recognized today.
An unprecedented amount of global business was conducted from within the Black Wall Street community, which flourished from the early 1900 until 1921. Then the unthinkable happened and the community faced a valley or more accurately stated feel of a cliff. The Black Wall Street community suffered the largest massacre of non-military Americans in the history of this country. As you might well imagine, the lower-economic Europeans looked over and saw how prosperous the Black community had become and destroyed it. I don’t know the true reason, jealousy was mentioned, but racism was certainly at its core. Lead by the infamous Ku Klux Klan, working in concert with ranking city officials, and many other sympathizers.
The destruction began Tuesday evening, June 1, 1921, when "Black Wall Street," the most affluent all-black community in America, was bombed from the air and burned to the ground by mobs of resentful whites. In a period spanning fewer than 12 hours, a once thriving black business district in northern Tulsa lay smoldering. A model community destroyed and a major Africa-American economic movement resoundingly defused. The night's carnage left some 3,000 African Americans dead and over 600 successful businesses lost. Among them were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half-dozen private airplanes and even the bus system.
This historic event, you would think should be common knowledge – but not so. One would be hard-pressed to find any documentation concerning the incident, let alone an accurate accounting of it. Not in any reference or American history book documenting the worst incidents of violence ever visited upon people of African descent. This night of horror was unimaginable. Try if you will to imagine seeing 1,500 homes being burned and looted, while white families with their children standing around the borders of the community watching the massacre much in the same manner they would watch a lynching. It must have been beyond belief for the victims.
I wonder if you aware of this little known history fact, where the word "picnic" came from? It was typical to have a picnic on a Friday evening in Oklahoma. The word was short for "pick a nigger" to lynch. They would lynch a Black male and cut off body parts as souvenirs. This went on every weekend in many part of the country with thousands lynched in the first part of the last century. Unfortunately, that is where the word actually came from.
The riots weren't caused by anything Black or white. It was caused as a result of Black prosperity. A lot of white folks had come back from World War I and they were poor. When they looked over into the Black Wall Street community and saw that Black men who fought in the war came home as heroes also contributed to the destruction. It cost the Black community everything - justice and reconciliation are often incompatible goals because not a single dime of restitution was ever provided, to include no insurance claims have been awarded to a single victims.
As I began, there are milestones, mountains, and valleys which surely encompassed this community and its people. This is why it is so important to teach these lessons because those who neglect the lessons of the past are doomed to see it repeated. Life is not a race you run, it is a relay and it is your responsibility to pass the baton. Our youth, the next generation, must be prepared and know when they look at our communities today that they came from a people who built kingdoms.
"A Black Holocaust in America."
Ron Wallace, Jay Jay Wilson