The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa found prosperity after the 1921 massacre. Then the highways came.



Culver said that in 2013, when Forbes called Tulsa the best place for young entrepreneurs, he didn’t think the magazine wasn’t talking about black entrepreneurs, many of whom lacked the capital and connections to compete. The same goes for the Arts District, which Culver and others say was developed largely through tax incentives and loans that mostly went to white developers. He said outside of the only remaining block of businesses in Greenwood, there were only four black landowners in the downtown area, one of which is the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.

Black residents of Tulsa have faced displacement and a loss of property and wealth that has spanned generations. Most live outside of Greenwood in northern Tulsa, while the wealthier downtown area remains largely white. Half of White Tulsans own their homes, compared to just over a third of Black Tulsans. White households have a median income that is $ 20,000 higher than that of the average black family.

Freeman Culver III, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said few black business owners stay in downtown Tulsa. Christopher Creese / for NBC News

“The plot to take it back took place – it just didn’t happen in 1921,” said Sean Thomas, a doctoral student in the geography department at Oklahoma State University. “And it didn’t happen through the massacre – it happened over time only through urban renewal and regular processes.”

Thomas is releasing an app this month that shows the original plots of massacre victims on a neighborhood map. He plans to turn over all of his digitized research to the Tulsa County Clerk’s Office, which he hopes to add to any future discussions on fairness and reparations.

“ Stripped of this opportunity ”

Many historians, researchers and locals now agree that the 1921 racial massacre was not a spontaneous event triggered by an interaction between a young black man and a white woman. Mass destruction, planes laden with firebombs, municipal ordinances that hampered reconstruction efforts, and internment camps have been slow to take hold.

The city wanted to raze much of what was left of Greenwood to build a train depot and move the area’s residents north, but a lawsuit stopped the plan. In December 1921, more than half of the approximately 1,200 destroyed houses were being rebuilt or repaired, according to the Red Cross.

Mabel Little’s beauty salon was destroyed during the massacre, along with her home. She left Oklahoma and forged a successful career as an inspector and supervisor for Lockheed Martin in California during World War II, then returned to Greenwood in the 1950s when she was in full swing. She rebuilt her business and home – only to have them foreclosed and leveled around 1970 under a prominent estate to build the highway.

“I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to be part of this community,” said Jennifer King, Little’s great-niece, who heads marketing for a Dallas law firm.

In the 1950s, Greenwood’s population exceeded 10,000. Thanks to the many auto garages, restaurants, doctor’s offices, and beauty salons like Little’s, black residents had firmly rebuilt much of the generational wealth that the massacre had threatened.

A parade on Greenwood Avenue rebuilt in the 1930s or 1940s.Greenwood Cultural Center / Getty Images

“My generation, my mother’s generation, is deprived of this opportunity,” King said. One of his great aunts ran a successful restaurant – known for its choked chicken, which happens to be King’s favorite recipe – which was destroyed in the massacre. “If things had been different, I would make Tulsa Smothered Chicken.”

Making the future fair

The residents of Greenwood have been calling for repairs for generations.

“Urban renewal not only took away our property, but something more important – our black unity, our pride, our sense of accomplishment and history,” said Jobie Holderness, a 1921 survivor and teacher of longtime at Tulsa Elementary School, to historian Eddie Faye Gates for his 1997 book “They Came To Search: How Black People Searched for the Promised Land in Tulsa.”

“We have to find that,” Holderness said.

Burlinda Radney, a Tulsa real estate agent, sees what happened in 1921 as an extension of a larger movement to steal generational wealth and property from black families – a movement that continues today in Greenwood , she said, where neighborhood families and their descendants have little influence over the future of the community.

Burlinda Radney, a real estate agent in Tulsa, believes the city should prioritize equity in the redevelopment of Greenwood. Christopher Creese / for NBC News

Radney said black entrepreneurs linked to Greenwood want to be a part of the growth happening here as the city seeks to fill land and buildings that have long been vacant. But if racial fairness is not factored into the redevelopment, she said, black residents will continue to lose leases given to the wealthy and well-connected. State law requires decisions about incentives and loans to be racial neutral.

Most of what remains of Greenwood’s 35 blocks belong to the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Development Authority. Where those 40 grocery stores once operated, there aren’t any left. Children in the neighborhood were forced to leave when their families’ homes were demolished, so what was once Frederick Douglass Elementary School became a police station.

In a lawsuit against the city and the development authority, among others, on behalf of several Greenwood residents, Tulsa lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons argues that the lack of schools, access to nutritious food , jobs and housing all play a role in the value of lost property. This reflects the city’s reluctance to provide Greenwood – as well as north Tulsa, where the majority of Tulsa’s black residents live – with adequate support for growth, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit details the evidence that Tulsa city officials, including police, participated in the 1921 violence and links this to the city’s use of the massacre as a means to promote tourism, which resulted in “their unjust enrichment at the expense of the latter. communities and exacerbated racial disparities, including the wealth divide. “

The city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Redevelopment Authority declined to comment on the lawsuit or talk about fairness in the redevelopment plans.

‘They still take’

As for the future of Greenwood, some here believe that I-244 – which runs east to west and sits above what were once famous cultural centers, like the Dreamland Theater – should be reduced in artery. Others believe it should be buried in a tunnel for the property above to provide new real estate. Many also want to see I-75, which cut most of the eastern edge and northern section of Greenwood removed.

Vernon Chapel AME Church across the I-244 viaduct that divides Greenwood.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

The I-75 gave Tulsa a chance to recruit the young, mostly white, professionals of the 1970s who wanted an easy way out of downtown and into the suburbs. Returning the land would not simply lead to new prosperity for Greenwood and its residents, Radney said; it could also lead to other forms of healing, such as turning the police station into a school.

“Frederick Douglass Elementary being a police station it is an affront to me,” she said. “The will of the city is what we are looking at today.”

As the author Moreno recently finished his walk through the neighborhood, he stopped by the many sidewalk plaques along Greenwood Avenue, commemorating the people and businesses lost over the past century. There is one at the foot of a small hill where Dr AC Jackson, who was shot dead outside his house on his way peacefully in 1921, once lived. Today, it is part of the Tulsa campus of Oklahoma State University.

Nearby, another commemorates the Dreamland Theater, where residents once enjoyed musicals and reviews.

Moreno stopped to wipe the pine needles off the Dreamland Theater plaque, which today sits in front of a berm on the highway. Leases have already been signed in the Gentrified Arts District, but Moreno wonders why the land on I-244 in north Greenwood, where empty lots and abandoned factories remain, is not being returned to the community. he was taken.

“They’re still taking,” Moreno said. “You’ve got this route from the highway program where Greenwood doesn’t have a say in what happens to their own lands.”



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