In the midst of constant news about Black death at the hands of police, emboldened neighborhood racists or disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infections, we need reminders of Black resilience for historical context and our collective psyche. While the story of Black Wall Street and the upcoming anniversary of the 1921 massacre illustrates the brutality of unchecked white supremacy, it also asserts the robust spirit of the Black community and entrepreneurship.
Ninety-nine years ago on May 31, 1921, a white supremacist mob burned down “Black Wall Street,” a prosperous neighborhood of Black-owned businesses, churches and homes in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Racially charged allegations of a young African-American man assaulting a young white woman combined with ongoing resentment of Black success ignited a White mob to kill hundreds of Black Tulsans and destroy acres of their property. It was one of the worst racial mass killings in American history; resulting in the mass exodus of thousands of Black Tulsans. Its aftereffects still deeply impact every aspect of the city.
While segregation by neighborhood and a dwindling Black middle class are the generational repercussions of the “Black Wall Street Massacre” (it was not “a riot” as it is often referred to), many Black Tulsans have an enduring respect for entrepreneurship and a commitment to carrying on this legacy.
“Black Wall Street is not a geographical location, it’s a mindset…it can be anywhere,” explained Phil Armstrong, project manager for the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. The commission is planning a series of events and activities for 2021 designed to educate Oklahomans and the country about Black Wall Street while supporting local entrepreneurship and encouraging cultural tourism. Amstrong’s passion for preserving history and sharing it beyond the city is palpable. He said that within five years of the massacre, Black Tulsans rebuilt the Greenwood District to 75 percent of what it was by pooling their resources, despite being blocked from insurance claims or government assistance. “It’s the spirit of determination and resilience, that’s what made Black Wall Street so viable,” he said.
Cultural preservation is the foundation of several new Black-owned businesses in the Greenwood District. Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, a former educator and avid reader, founded Fulton Street Books and Coffee to increase intergenerational literacy and to build community. Ninety percent of her inventory is written by or features people of color and those from marginalized communities.
“What if storytelling is an act of revolution?” asks Asamoa-Caesar. Studying history helped her understand the world and her place in it and she believes that diverse stories can shift narratives about Black people. “With Fulton Street, part of what I intend to do is uncover our stories and how they can be used as a connection point for people.” Through events like “Fatherhood Fridays” and the “/Syllabus/” book club, Asamoa-Caesar had plans to bring people together in a space decorated with images of esteemed Black writers and artists. And even though the grand opening has been delayed until July 3 due to COVID-19, Fulton Street is currently selling books and other merchandise online.
The Black Wall Street Massacre is a lesson about how adaptability and commitment to each other’s success ensure the longevity of Greenwood’s Black businesses. Being in the midst of a global pandemic obviously creates a challenge for in-person community building, a value at the heart of many businesses including The Black Wall Street Gallery. The gallery aims for visitors to experience art while engaging in difficult dialogues about Black Wall Street, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and overall race relations.
“COVID-19 forced me and my team to think outside the box and to dream bigger. Once we did, we began to create projects, which in turn became businesses, and now those businesses are in a position to create jobs for others,” said Dr. Ricco Wright, owner of the Black Wall Street Gallery. He recently launched an online shop and clothing brand and is making the gallery’s exhibits accessible on its website even after the physical space reopens on June 1.
During the pandemic, legendary local restaurants like Wanda J’s Next Generation and newer specialty stores like Frios, a gourmet popsicle shop, have been heavily supported by customers of all ethnicities for pick-up and delivery. During its heyday, Black Wall Street was able to thrive not only because of the flow of Black dollars but by patronage from all members of the community. To this end, Silhouette Sneakers and Art, a boutique geared towards sneakerheads, has focused on its online store to appeal to a worldwide audience. Local foundations have also deeply invested in Black entrepreneurship during this pandemic to ensure these small businesses survive into the centennial and beyond. Even with the uncertainty of the year ahead, reclaiming space – like the 33 blocks that make up the historic Greenwood District – and the right to exist and thrive is in the hearts of many Black Tulsan entrepreneurs and residents.
It’s especially poignant to Asamoa-Caesar who pays homage to the song “Strange Fruit” on one of the bookstore’s walls to assert Black survival in the face of blatant bigotry. She shared how Billie Holiday’s classic song about lynchings captured national attention but also made her a government target. Holiday was specifically silenced by noted bigot and then Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, who knew of her history with addiction. He set her up to be arrested for drug possession landing her in jail, and when she was released he revoked her cabaret license so she couldn’t travel and perform the song. After checking into the hospital due to heroin use and cancer, Anslinger made sure Holiday was handcuffed to the bed, refused life-saving medicine and “guarded” by cops at her door. Even though his actions eventually killed her, Nina Simone brought the song back to life decades later.
“It brings me so much joy to know that he could not kill that thing,” said Asamoa-Caesar. “The parallel for me of this upcoming anniversary is when the white folks burned down Greenwood, when they saw the encampments and saw that the businesses had been completely burned to the ground, they must have thought, ‘We did it. It’s over. We’ve killed that thing that we wanted so badly to eradicate from the face of this earth, right?’ But now as we see the resurgence of Black businesses, whether it’s Fulton Street, whether it’s Silhouette, whether it’s the Black Wall Street Gallery, it gives me joy right now that opening my doors has them rolling over in their graves too.”
Janna Zinzi is a traveling storyteller documenting cultural changemakers in arts, spirituality and social justice. She’s the co-founder of WanderWomxnTravels and an international burlesque teacher and performer based in Los Angeles.