While President Trump is taking credit for promoting Juneteenth as a holiday he made famous (will the lies ever end? Will he ever hit bottom?), his Saturday rally in Tulsa is exposing the decimation of “Black Wall Street” — a thriving African-American economy — that took place in that city nearly 100 years ago.
The massacre, which began on May 31, 1921 and left hundreds of black residents dead and 1,000 houses destroyed, often overshadows the history of the venerable black enclave itself. Greenwood District, with a population of 10,000 at the time, had thrived as the epicenter of African American business and culture, particularly on bustling Greenwood Avenue, commonly known as Black Wall Street.
“Oklahoma begins to be promoted as a safe haven for African Americans who start to come particularly post emancipation to Indian Territory,” says Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
The largest number of black townships after the Civil War were located in Oklahoma. Between 1865 and 1920, African Americans founded more than 50 black townships in the state.
“I think the word jealousy is certainly appropriate during this time,” says Place. “If you have particularly poor whites who are looking at this prosperous community who have large homes, fine furniture, crystals, china, linens, etc., the reaction is ‘they don’t deserve that.’”
In response, The Tulsa Star, a Black-owned newspaper, encouraged blacks to take up arms and to show up at courthouses and jails to make sure blacks who were on trial were not taken and killed by white lynch mobs.
But the heightened racial animosity in Tulsa erupted in 1921 when 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoe shiner was accused of attempted sexual assault of a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. When an angry white mob went to the courthouse to demand that the sheriff hand over Rowland, the sheriff refused. A group of about 25 armed black men—including many World War I veterans—then went to the courthouse to offer help guarding Rowland.
As word of a possible lynching spread, a group of around 75 armed blacks returned to the courthouse, where they were met by some 1,500 whites. After clashes between the groups, the black men retreated to Greenwood.
With millions in property damage and no help from the city, the rebuilding of Greenwood began almost immediately, thanks to the assistance of the NAACP, other black townships in Oklahoma, donations from black churches and a resilient Greenwood community. However, some businesses like the Tulsa Star newspaper were permanently shuttered in the wake of the violence.
There’s a dramatization of the Black Wall Street Massacre in HBO’s excellent series “Watchmen” which is streaming for free this weekend (look up which provider is offering it up for your service).
So why bring this up.
- You likely didn’t learn about this in school
- Trump’s selection of Tulsa on Juneteenth was a dog whitsle to supporters of his who still wave the Confederate flag and are racisis (not all Trump supporters are racists, but I’ll go out on a limb and say all racists are Trump supporters.
The Trump campaign boasts that more than a million people asked for tickets in a venue that holds around 15,000. Tulsa has a population of 400,000 and Oklahoma has about 3.9 million. The city has reported a spike in COVID19 cases too. And how many inside the arena won’t wear a mask because FREEDOM!