About thirty years after the end of the Civil War, a group fleeing a hostile south settled an all-Black town in the territory of Oklahoma, about 80 miles west of Tulsa. The founder of the town, Edwin McCabe, had a vision of Oklahoma as the Black Promised Land and sent recruiters into the Deep South to encourage others to move west. By the end of the 19th century, Oklahoma became the home of 29 separatist Black towns.
The vision for a Black state, however, vanished with the discovery of oil in the late 1890s. Whites and Blacks alike descended on Tulsa from 1897 through the early 1900s as it became an oil boomtown. Black residents in the territory continued to grow during the years leading up to statehood (1907) and most flocked to the cities. Tulsa was one of the most popular destinations.
The Black population in Tulsa settled on the North side of the tracks and became known as Greenwood. Many Greenwood residents made their livings working for Whites on the South side, but strict segregation laws prohibited them from shopping in White establishments. This proved to be a boon for the economy of Greenwood, and businesses of all types sprung up to serve the growing community. By 1921, Greenwood was the most affluent Black community in the United States, and was given the moniker, Black Wall Street. Residents included lawyers, doctors, and business owners and its main strip boasted offices, auto shops, restaurants, hotels, funeral homes, pool halls, beauty salons, grocery stores, furriers, and theaters.
The wealth of Greenwood became a source of jealousy for many Whites on the other side of the tracks. These tensions were fueled by KKK marches and cross-burnings. Finally, a reported attack of a White woman by a Black man (which later proved to be false) triggered what is generally regarded as the biggest race riot in the history of the United States. During the morning of June 1, 1921, Black Wall Street was invaded by White mobs. Over 1200 homes and close to 200 businesses were burned to the ground. Approximately 300 people died and affluent Greenwood was reduced to rubble after the terrible morning of violence. National guardsmen arrested the surviving 6000 residents of Greenwood, who could only be released if a White resident ”vouched” for them. None of the White invaders were ever prosecuted for their crimes.
This terrible chapter in US history wasn’t spoken of for generations and was finally brought to light in 1995 by an Oklahoma state commission that was charged with investigating the incident and making a recommendation regarding potential reparations for the few remaining survivors. The commission did recommend reparations and also produced the first accurate and comprehensive account of the riots, which effectively ended the seventy-five year conspiracy of silence.
Black Wall Street is the setting for my most recent novel of historical fiction, Living in the Middle, to be released May 2019. I hope you enjoy it!