The death of Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while his hands were in the air, shook the nation. The incident occurred when Crutcher’s SUV broke down in the middle of the road on a Friday night in September 2016. In need of car assistance, Crutcher was met by several police officers who drew their weapons and typecasted him as a “bad dude.” Video footage shows the officers walked closely behind Crutcher while his hands were up. He then stood beside his car moments before he was tasered and then-Officer Betty Shelby opened fire and killed him. The white cop defended her actions, saying Crutcher failed to adhere to police commands and that he was reaching inside of the driver side window for a weapon. Crutcher’s attorneys, however, argued that the window was rolled up. Nevertheless, a churchgoing father of four is dead while Shelby works as a full-time sheriff’s deputy.
The shooting took place a few miles away from where Gregory Robinson grew up, but at the time, he was working as a political organizer in Florida for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. For him, Crutcher’s death was more than an unjustified murder and act of grotesque police brutality; it was a calling that lured him back to the historically neglected African American community in northern Tulsa. The shooting was also a stark reminder that the work of his late father, Gregory Robinson Sr. — a local community activist and organizer who died fighting for reparations for the black Tulsans who survived one of the worst massacres in the 1900s — was left undone.
Robinson moved back to Tulsa immediately following the 2016 election and was confronted by the realities that pushed him out of the deep red state in the first place. The city drives its best homegrown talent out, he explained. “My friends who are super intelligent and super successful, they’re [establishing their] lives in Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, and [other] urban centers that have historically been more welcoming to African Americans who are entrepreneurial-minded.” Whereas in Oklahoma, he said, we’re up against “an extreme amount of inequality.”
Nevertheless, Robinson instinctively picked up his father’s mantle and became the agent of change that his hometown desperately needed, pursuing justice for Crutcher as well as pushing for reconciliation from the city of Tulsa for its role in the 1921 Race Riots, a bloody massacre that decimated a community of affluent black businesses owners and killed hundreds of African Americans. “[My dad] fought the city until his death to really acknowledge and apologize for the race massacre.”
Tulsan police and government agents provided firearms and ammunition to the white citizens in addition to participating in the violence, themselves.
At the core of Robinson’s fight is the preservation of Greenwood, a historic district in Tulsa where the first black business mecca in America was founded in the early 20th century. It contained dozens of thriving businesses and establishments, including a hotel, banks, publishing companies, schools, and various stores. Filled with doctors, lawyers, educators, and entrepreneurs, this exclusive enclave was known as Black Wall Street. However, on May 31, 1921, white mobs, angry and armed, burned down 35 blocks in the district using privately commissioned bomber planes in what is known as the 1921 Race Riot. Around 300 black residents were killed, while 10,000 others were left homeless. Meanwhile, Tulsan police and government agents provided firearms and ammunition to the white citizens in addition to participating in the violence, themselves.
The incident was triggered by accusations that a young black man named Dick Rowland assaulted a white woman in an elevator on May 30. Rowland was arrested by Tulsa police the following day and was brought to a courthouse where a confrontation between black and white residents broke out. Eventually, shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans were forced to retreat to Greenwood. White mobs relentlessly ransacked Greenwood between May 31 until the morning of June 1 before the National Guard arrived shortly before noon. Though National Guardsmen helped put out fires, they also imprisoned around 6,000 black Tulsans.
Yet, in spite of the devastating loss of life and business, black Tulsans resurrected Greenwood in 1925 and the district reached an economic peak in 1941. However, that progress was short-lived due to discriminatory policies that crippled the community, including an “urban removable” program and a highway that was built over much of the area. The neighborhood also fell prey to an economic and population drain in the 1960s. But perhaps the biggest setback in the aftermath of the riot is the fact that the existence and destruction of Black Wall Street is rarely ever discussed, taught, or acknowledged.
A Conspiracy of Silence
Many Tulsans, both black and white, are unaware that one of the worst acts of racialized violence in history took place in their own backyards. For decades, there were no public ceremonies or memorials to commemorate the events. In addition, Tulsan residents say they didn’t learn about the riot in school. Rather, Robinson believes that the Oklahoma government engaged in a “conscious cover-up” to keep the slaughter concealed while residents of color were silenced by a “paralysis of fear.”
“I didn’t know about the 1921 race riots until after I graduated from college,” admitted Reuben Gant, a community leader and Tulsa native who was drafted into the NFL in 1974 after graduating from Oklahoma State University.
Likewise, Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum says he didn’t learn about the tragedy until 2001 despite the fact that his family has been working in Tulsan politics since 1898. “There was a conspiracy of silence in the community…for decades,” said Bynum. Ironically, the self-proclaimed history nerd was 24 years old when he found out about the massacre and the role that his own family played in helping African Americans find refuge. Older generations were too ashamed to acknowledge the riot, he said. “You can’t underestimate the impact of shame on a community. Even from people who had nothing to do with it, who weren’t actively engaged in the massacre that occurred, whose families were actually trying to help; there was still a [level of] shame within our community,” said Bynum. To this day, no one has been able to locate the newspaper that published the day after the massacre. “It was taken out of the library decades ago.”
Although the 1921 Race Riot was kept quiet, it never escaped the memory of those who survived, while its impact lingered on for generations, driving a wedge of disparity between whites and blacks in Tulsa. Northern Tulsa, where Black Wall Street once thrived, is now a community of concentrated poverty, with failing schools, and a food dessert that lacks a grocery store. “You can see the tremendous gap that has been created with the destruction of Black Wall Street through the massacre and by ‘urban removable,’” said Robinson. He noted that a dollar bill once circulated 19 to 21 times within the African American community during Black Wall Street’s golden era. Today, “in that same area, the dollar is now turning around twice.” On top of that, Robinson says, “there is close to 4,800 African American students that currently attend failing schools.”
Back in the 1990s, Robinson Sr. demanded that the city right these wrongs through reparations, but that push has since lost steam. “We haven’t had discussions about reparations,” said Mayor Bynum flatly. “I don’t know what the pluses and minuses are of that. My focus is on recognizing the clear disparity that exists today between the predominantly African American part of our city and the whitest part of our city, and that is an 11-year life expectancy gap,” said the Republican mayor, referring to a study that found that white Tulsans live more than a decade longer than blacks.
Rather than depending on the government, some grassroots organizations and organizers have taken the lead in rebuilding Tulsa and revitalizing the spirit of Black Wall Street. One such organization is The METCares Foundation, (MCF) where Robinson currently works as the Director of Family & Community Ownership. Under his leadership, MCF opened its first school. MCF is also determined to revitalize North Tulsa by building a sense of community ownership, fostering economic development and opportunity, and pushing for the race massacre to be mandatory in the school curriculum.
A Spirit of White Supremacy
Yet, among the challenges of rebuilding Black Wall Street is the grim reminder of the bigoted history that has been preserved and celebrated in Tulsa. A “spirit of white supremacy” continues to reign in the city, says Robinson. This is, perhaps, best depicted in the Brady Arts District, a hub for art and music festivals that was named after Wyatt Tate Brady, a prominent businessman who invested in Tulsa and signed the city’s incorporation papers. “Tate Brady was one of the founders of Tulsa, [but] he is a known documented leader of the Ku Klux Klan. His Brady mansion is modeled after [the home of Confederate General] Robert E. Lee.”
Tulsa “is named after a person who was proud of the Tulsa Race Massacre, was alive when it happened, was one of the leaders in it; and now we celebrate his name and his legacy.”
An article published in 2011 by The Land magazine shed further light on Brady’s problematic history, revealing that Brady was responsible for cultivating an environment of racism that led to the 1921 Race Riot. He also served as a night watchman during the two-day massacre. “When that was found out,” says Robinson, “there was a group of African American Tulsans who petitioned to get the name of Brady Street stripped and the area of Brady District renamed.” But after a multi-year battle, the Tulsa city council voted in 2013 to merely tweak “Brady Street” to “M.B. Brady Street” in honor of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Lawmakers did nothing to change the district, buildings, and monuments that memorialize and bear the hate leader’s name. Robinson says he still wrestles with the fact that one of the most popular areas in Tulsa “is named after a person who was proud of the Tulsa Race Massacre, was alive when it happened, was one of the leaders in it; and now we celebrate his name and his legacy.”
Rebuilding Black Wall Street
The revitalization of Greenwood is inevitable. It’s happening thanks to investors like billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser, who, through his namesake foundation, is funding attractions like a $465 million 100-acre park in the heart of Tulsa. The USA BMX headquarters, museum, and indoor arena in Greenwood is another attraction that promises to generate tourism and dollars to the area once it opens in 2019. However, business experts believe that African Americans will not benefit or profit from these investments without an intentional effort that fosters economic opportunity and inclusion for black businesses. William Isaac McCoy, a business owner who was appointed by President Obama as the senior advisor for Business Development at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Minority Business Development Agency, says giving black entrepreneurs access to procurement is key. Procurement, he explained, is the buying of goods and services by a private or public entity. Through public procurement programs, companies can land lucrative contracts with the local, state, and federal government or municipalities.
Intentionally giving African American set-asides or a percentage of the profit would not only secure their stake in the rebuilding efforts, it could also potentially be the driving force behind black employment and community development.
“One of the things that a lot of people and business owners [sometimes] miss is that government entities on all levels—city, county, state, federal—are economic engineers. Why? Because they purchase a lot of goods and services,” said McCoy. “They buy pens, paper, uniforms, they redo the roads, they redo the waterways, they make buildings.” Plus, they purchase services from lawyers, accountants, trainers, and other professionals. As a result, securing a federal contract of $10 million to be a supplier for two years, for example, would empower a business owner with the capital to grow their business or even launch other ventures far beyond their personal finances, he said.
However, he acknowledged that public procurement is not easily accessible for minorities. “It’s the good old boys club. The government usually does business with who they know and who has a track record.” Private organizations, however, can also impact African American suppliers by giving them direct contracts. Intentionally giving African American set-asides or a percentage of the profit would not only secure their stake in the rebuilding efforts, it could also potentially become a driving force behind black employment and community development, said McCoy.
According to McCoy, procurement is the impetus behind flourishing black business hubs in places like Atlanta and Washington, D.C. In addition to district-focused procurement opportunities, minority business owners benefited from federal procurement in D.C. “When they put those set-asides and affirmative action in place, it allowed black businesses to grow and scale.”
Likewise, the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport underwent a multibillion-dollar makeover spanning from 2009 to 2012 that intentionally distributed contracts to minority-owned businesses. “They had minority spends that were extremely high—30% to 40% minority participation,” he said. “This allowed minority businesses to get secure contacts, to get notoriety, and to then prove and dispel the [myth] that minority businesses operate inefficiently compared to white businesses. When you see a black business not only get a large contract but then be successful in sustaining and meeting their goals, now that opened up opportunities for these businesses that were otherwise not available to them prior to the procurement.”
Atlanta and DC also had a number of black mayors and elected officials who’ve been intentional about granting minority and women-owned businesses with educational tools and access to capital. “It allowed black businesses to grow, to be sustainable and to scale,” said McCoy. As a result, he pointed out that those two regions have spawned some of the wealthiest African American communities in the country.
On the other hand, the state of Oklahoma voted to ban affirmative action in 2012, which effectively terminated the mandate that required minority-owned participation in procurement. As a result, McCoy, who paid a visit to Tulsa in May for Dream Tulsa Weekend, says that the city of Tulsa has to address this on a policy level. “I had a conversation with the mayor and a councilman [and] it really [depends on] their intention on making programs and policies that infuse economic capital and sustainability.”
Nevertheless, community activist Rev. Jamaal Dyer believes that rebuilding Black Wall Street is within the realm of possibility. He says it starts with residents pooling together their resources to buy and develop land in Greenwood. “There’s property in the Greenwood District that could really be developed by our people, but for whatever reason, we [haven’t] purchased it or past leadership has sold to the city [government].” According to him, “it’s important that the place where it all started is able to show that we can do it again.” He added, “Greenwood was 35 blocks of businesses owned by African Americans. It may not be to that magnitude, but I do believe that we can have a group of black businesses owners here in Tulsa who can replicate that mindset.”
As Tulsa counts down to its 100-year anniversary on May 31, 2021, the city’s racial and socio-economic progress—or the lack thereof—is increasingly coming under scrutiny, resulting in a sense of urgency for city officials to tackle the same racial tensions, inequalities, and challenges that triggered the massacre. Now’s the time to own up to the city’s dark history and take measures to reverse its effects, says Robinson. “At some point, we have to face our past.”
This article was updated on June 19, 2018.