Greenwood, Tulsa

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Nickname(s): Black Wall Street
Country United States
State Oklahoma
County Tulsa County
City Tulsa

Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As one of the most successful and wealthiest African American communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, it was popularly known as America's "Black Wall Street" until the terroristic acts of white residents lead to the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which white residents massacred black residents and razed the neighborhood within hours. The riot was one of the most devastating massacres in the history of U.S. race relations, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.

Within five years after the massacre, surviving residents who chose to remain in Tulsa rebuilt much of the district. They accomplished this despite the opposition of many white Tulsa political and business leaders and punitive rezoning laws enacted to prevent reconstruction. It resumed being a vital black community until segregation was overturned by the Federal Government during the 1950s and 1960s. Desegregation encouraged blacks to live and shop elsewhere in the city, causing Greenwood to lose much of its original vitality. Since then, city leaders have attempted to encourage other economic development activity nearby.

The Roots[edit]

Many Black Americans moved to Oklahoma in the years before and after 1907, which is the year Oklahoma became a state. Oklahoma represented change and provided a chance for black Americans to get away from slavery and the harsh racism of their previous homes.[1] Most of them traveled from other states in the south where racism was very prevalent, and Oklahoma offered hope and provided all people with a chance to start over. They traveled to Oklahoma by wagons, horses, trains, and even on foot.

Many of the black Americans who traveled to Oklahoma had ancestors who could be traced back to Oklahoma. A lot of the settlers were relatives of black Americans who had traveled on foot with the Five Civilized Tribes along the Trail of Tears. Others were the descendants of people who had fled to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in an effort to escape lives of oppression in the South. Many Blacks were also from the various Muskogee speaking peoples, such Creeks, Seminoles, and the Yuchi, while some had been adopted by the tribe after the Emancipation Proclamation. They were thus able to live freely in the Oklahoma Territory.[2]

When Tulsa became a booming and rather well noted town in the United States, the residents and government attempted to leave out important aspects of the city. Many people considered Tulsa to be two separate cities rather than one city of united communities. The white residents of Tulsa referred to the area north of the Frisco railroad tracks as “Little Africa” and other derogatory names. This community later acquired the name Greenwood and by 1921 it was home to about 10,000 black American men, women, and children.[1]

Greenwood was centered on a street known as Greenwood Avenue. This street was important because it ran north for over a mile from the Frisco Railroad yards, and it was one of the few streets that did not cross through both black and white neighborhoods. The citizens of Greenwood took pride in this fact because it was something they had all to themselves and did not have to share with the white community of Tulsa. Greenwood Avenue was home to the black American commercial district with many red brick buildings. These buildings belonged to black Americans and they were thriving businesses, including grocery stores, banks, libraries, and much more. Greenwood was one of the most affluent communities and it became known as “Black Wall Street.”

The Black Wall Street[edit]

During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood, which came to be known as "the Negro Wall Street" (now commonly referred to as "the Black Wall Street").[3] The area was home to several prominent black businessmen. Greenwood boasted a variety of thriving businesses that were very successful up until the Tulsa Race Riot. Not only did black Americans want to contribute to the success of their own shops, but there were also racial segregation laws that prevented them from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood.[4] Following the riots, the area was rebuilt and thrived until the 1960s when desegregation allowed blacks to shop in areas from which they were restricted.

Detroit Avenue, along the edge of Standpipe Hill, contained a number of expensive houses belonging to doctors, lawyers and business owners. The buildings on Greenwood Avenue housed the offices of almost all of Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors, doctors, and other professionals.[5] In Tulsa at the time of the riot, there were fifteen well-known black American physicians, one of whom, Dr. A.C. Jackson, was considered the “most able Negro surgeon in America” by one of the Mayo brothers.[6] Dr. Jackson was shot to death as he left his house during the unrest.[2] Greenwood published two newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun, which covered not only Tulsa, but also state and national news and elections. The buildings that housed the newspapers were destroyed during the destruction of Greenwood.[2]

Greenwood was a very religiously active community. At the time of the racial violence there were more than a dozen black American churches and many Christian youth organizations and religious societies.[citation needed]

In northeastern Oklahoma, as elsewhere in America, the prosperity of minorities emerged amidst racial and political tension. The Ku Klux Klan made its first major appearance in Oklahoma shortly before one of the worst race riots in history.[7] It is estimated that there were about 3,200 members of the Klan in Tulsa in 1921.[citation needed]

O.W. Gurley (Founder)[edit]

Around the start of the 20th century O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American land-owner from Arkansas, traversed the United States to participate in the Oklahoma Land run of 1889. The young entrepreneur had just resigned from a presidential appointment under president Grover Cleveland in order to strike out on his own."[8]

In 1906, Gurley moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he purchased 40 acres of land which was "only to be sold to colored".[8] Black ownership was unheard of at that time.

Among Gurley's first businesses was a rooming house which was located on a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. This road was given the name Greenwood Avenue, named for a city in Mississippi. The area became very popular among African American migrants fleeing the oppression in Mississippi. They would find refuge in Gurley's building, as the racial persecution from the south was non-existent on Greenwood Avenue.

In addition to his rooming house, Gurley built three two-story buildings and five residences and bought an 80-acre (320,000 m2) farm in Rogers County. Gurley also founded what is today Vernon AME Church.[2]

This implementation of "colored" segregation set the Greenwood boundaries of separateness that exist to this day: Pine Street to the North, Archer Street and the Frisco tracks to the South, Cincinnati Street on the West, and Lansing Street on the East. The segregation is pronounced in subtle landmarks. South of Archer, Greenwood Avenue does not exist in white neighborhoods.[2]

Another African American entrepreneur, J.B. Stradford, arrived in Tulsa in 1899. He believed that black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, worked together and supported each other's businesses. He bought large tracts of real estate in the northeastern part of Tulsa, which he had subdivided and sold exclusively to other African Americans. Gurley and a number of other blacks soon followed suit. Stradford later built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood, where blacks could enjoy the amenities of the downtown hotels who served only whites. It was said to be the largest black-owned hotel in the United States.[2]

Gurley's prominence and wealth were short lived. In a matter of moments, he lost everything. During the race riot, The Gurley Hotel at 112 N. Greenwood, the street’s first commercial enterprise, valued at $55,000, was lost, and with it Brunswick Billiard Parlor and Dock Eastmand & Hughes Cafe. Gurley also owned a two-story building at 119 N. Greenwood. It housed Carter’s Barbershop, Hardy Rooms, a pool hall, and cigar store. All were reduced to ruins. By his account and court records, he lost nearly $200,000 in the 1921 race riot.[2]

Because of his leadership role in creating this self-sustaining exclusive black "enclave", it had been falsely rumored that Gurley was lynched by a white mob and buried in an unmarked grave. However, according to the memoirs of Greenwood pioneer, B.C. Franklin,[9] Gurley exiled himself to California. The founder of the most successful African American community of his time vanished from the history books and drifted into obscurity. He is now being honored in a 2008 documentary film called, Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.[10]

The Tulsa Race Riot[edit]

Black Wall Street in flames, June 1921
Main article: Tulsa Race Riot

One of the nation's worst acts of American racial violence, the Tulsa Race Riot occurred in late May and early June 1921. On the day of the riot, 35 square blocks of homes and businesses were torched by mobs of angry whites. The riot began because of the alleged assault of a white elevator operator, 17-year-old Sarah Page, by an African American shoeshiner, 19-year old Dick Rowland (the case against Mr. Rowland was eventually dismissed). The Tulsa Tribune published the story of the incident on May 31, 1921. Shortly after the newspaper article was published, there was a rumor that a white lynch mob was going to kill Dick Rowland.[6]

A group of armed white men congregated outside the jail, and subsequently, a group of African American men joined the assembled crowd in order to protect Dick Rowland. There was an argument in which a white man tried to take a gun from a black man, during which the gun was fired into the air. African Americans returned to Greenwood. A group of angry whites followed a group of African Americans with many guns and lots of ammunition, which was stolen from local stores. Guns were also provided to the white mob by local law enforcement officials. Now, the riot had begun with local police officers and national guardsmen fighting against the African Americans. (Messer, Chris. “Part of Special Issue: Social Memory and Historical Justice.” Journal of Social History; Summer 2011, Vol. 44 Issue 4, p1217-1232, 16p) Whites flooded into the Greenwood district and destroyed the businesses and homes of African American residents. No one was exempt from the violence of the white mobs; men, women, and even children were killed by the mobs.The total number of deaths from the riot is unknown. African Americans were arrested and placed in detention camps. They remained detained for months. African Americans, eight years later, still hadn’t received financial reparations for the destruction of their community. (Messer, Chris. “Part of Special Issue: Social Memory and Historical Justice.” Journal of Social History; Summer2011, Vol. 44 Issue 4, p1217-1232, 16p)

Over 600 successful businesses were lost. An estimated eight thousand citizens were homeless. Over one thousand 1,200 homes destroyed. (Archer, Seth. “Reading the Riot Acts.” Southwest Review; 2006, Vol. 91 Issue 4, p500-516, 17p) Among these 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 a bus system. It was a time when the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, yet six blacks owned their own planes. When the riot was over, Atlanta Klansman and Baptist minister Caleb A. Riley assembled Tulsans at the Convention Hall. He spoke about the jury organized to investigate the riot. The jury concluded that the riot was “a direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse…..for the purpose of protecting Dick Rowland.” (Archer, Seth. “Reading the Riot Acts.” Southwest Review; 2006, Vol. 91 Issue 4, p500-516, 17p)

Race, greed, and Jim Crow laws played a major role in how African Americans were treated because whites tried to stop African Americans from successfully rebuilding after the riot. Whites tried to tell African Americans who they could sell their goods to and where they can purchase them, so their business would experience more success. Since oil was booming during this time, whites wanted all control of the profits from each and every business in Greenwood. The thought of African Americans putting whites out of business put fear in each white business owner’s mind because then they may have felt equal. (Hadda, Kenneth. “The Power to Undo Sin: Race, History and Literacy Blackness in Rilla Askew’s “Fire in Beulah.” College Literature; Spring2007, Vol. 34 Issue 4, p166-189, 24p)

The African American citizens suspected that the entire thing was planned because many white men, women and children stood on the borders of the city and watched as black men, women and children were shot, burned and lynched. In addition, some of the black-owned airplanes were stolen by the white mob and used to throw cocktail bombs & dynamite sticks from the sky.[11] Although the official death toll claimed that 26 blacks and 13 whites died during the fighting, most estimates are considerably higher. At the time of the riot, the American Red Cross estimated that over 300 persons were killed. The Red Cross also listed 8,624 persons in need of assistance and the delivery of several stillborn infants.[6]

Post riot[edit]

The community mobilized its resources and rebuilt the Greenwood area within five years of the Tulsa Race Riot and the neighborhood was a hotbed of jazz and blues in the 1920s.[11] However, the neighborhood fell prey to an economic and population drain in the 1960s, and much of the area was leveled during urban renewal in the early 1970s to make way for a highway loop around the downtown district. Several blocks around the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street were saved from demolition and have been restored, forming part of the Greenwood Historical District.

Modern Greenwood[edit]

Greenwood Historical District[edit]

The Greenwood Historical District comprises an area bounded by the Crosstown Expressway (I-244) on the north, Elgin Avenue on the west, Greenwood Avenue on the east and the Frisco tracks on the south.[12]


Revitalization and preservation efforts in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in tourism initiatives and memorials. John Hope Franklin Greenwood Reconciliation Park and the Greenwood Cultural Center honor the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot, although the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce plans a larger museum to be built with participation from the National Park Service.[13]

In 2008, Tulsa announced that it sought to move the city's minor league baseball team, the Tulsa Drillers, to a new stadium, now known as ONEOK Field to be constructed in the Greenwood District. The proposed development includes a hotel, baseball stadium, and an expanded mixed-use district.[14] Along with the new stadium, there will be extra development for the city blocks that surround the stadium. This project will bring Greenwood Historical District out front and center and attract not only tourists but also Tulsa residents to North Tulsa.

Greenwood Cultural Center[edit]

Greenwood Cultural Center

The Greenwood Cultural Center, dedicated on October 22, 1995, was created as a tribute to Greenwood’s history and as a symbol of hope for the community’s future.[15] The center has a museum, an African American art gallery, a large banquet hall, and housed the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame until 2007. The total cost of the center was almost $3 million.[16] The cultural center is a very important part of the reconstruction and unity of the Greenwood Historical District.

The Greenwood Cultural Center sponsors and promotes education and cultural events preserving African American heritage. It also provides positive images of North Tulsa to the community, attracting a wide variety of visitors, not only to the center itself, but also to the city of Tulsa as a whole.[17]

In 2011, the Greenwood Cultural Center lost 100% of its funding from the State of Oklahoma. As a result, the center may be forced to close its doors.[18] A fundraising campaign is now underway to try to raise private funds to keep the educational and cultural facility open.[citation needed]

Application for NRHP Status[edit]

The City of Tulsa submitted an application to the U.S. Department of the Interior, for the "Greenwood Historic District" on September 29, 2011. On August 8, 2012, the Coordinator of the National Register Program wrote the Tulsa Preservation Commission that the proposed District would be renamed as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.[19] As of November 2014, the proposed Historic District had not been implemented.

John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park[edit]

Ground was broken in 2008 at 415 North Detroit Avenue for a proposed Reconciliation Park to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. John Hope Franklin, son of B. C. Franklin and a notable hisorian, attended the groundbreaking ceremony. After his death in 2009, the park was renamed John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. Attractions include two sculptures and a dozen bronze informational plaques. It is a park primarily designed for education and reflection, and does not contain facilities for sports or other recreation.

Originally funded by the State of Oklahoma, City of Tulsa and private donors, it is now owned by the city and managed by the non-profit corporation, John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b[dead link]
  2. ^ a b c d e f g James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, Houghton Mifflin (2002) ISBN 0-618-10813-0
  3. ^ A Find of a Lifetime. Silent film of black American towns in Oklahoma. 1920s. Rev. S. S. Jones for the National Baptist Convention. American Heritage magazine. Retrieved September 16, 2006.
  4. ^ "Tulsa's Greenwood Centre Was Once 'Black Wall Street of the Southwest'", The Daily Oklahoman, February 4, 1985.
  5. ^ "Up From the Ashes", Tulsa World, March 8, 1993
  6. ^ Hannibal B. Johnson, Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District. Austin, TX. 1998.
  7. ^ Charles C. Alexander, Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press (1965)
  8. ^ a b Lori Latrice Sykes, Making the System Work for You: The Alexander Norton Story, M&B Visionaries (2008) ISBN 0-615-19355-2
  9. ^ John Hope Franklin and John Whittington Franklin, eds., My Life and an Era, the Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, Louisiana State University Press (1998) ISBN 0-8071-2213-0
  10. ^ Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.
  11. ^ Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
  12. ^ "Greenwood Historical District neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma (OK), 74120 detailed profile."
  13. ^ Lassek, P.J. (2007-10-24). "Race riot memorial: Councilors might back efforts for designation". Tulsa World. Retrieved 2008-10-29. 
  14. ^ Lassek, P.J. (2008-06-25). "Tulsa Drillers stadium coming downtown to Greenwood District". Tulsa World. Retrieved 2008-10-29. 
  15. ^ Greenwood Cultural Center
  16. ^ "Ruins to Renaissance", Tulsa World (October 15, 1995)
  17. ^ Hannibal B. Johnson, " Greenwood District." Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Accessed April 19, 2015.
  18. ^ America's Black Holocaust Museum. On this date in history, May 31, 1921: The Tulsa Race Riot." Accessed April 19, 2015.
  19. ^ "Naming of Historic District."] U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 36°09′42″N 95°59′12″W / 36.16166°N 95.98660°W / 36.16166; -95.98660