Here’s How Oklahoma’s Black Entrepreneurs Are Rebuilding ‘Black Wall Street’
Over 300 black-owned businesses once thrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District aka, ‘Black Wall Street.” In 1921, Greenwood was burned to the ground in the worst race massacre in United States history. It was rebuilt. But, eventually succumbed to the systemic racism of urban planning and discriminatory policies in the mid-20th century.
Dream Tulsa, a new program developed by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, is growing local talent and recruiting black entrepreneurs from around the nation to rebuild Black Wall Street.Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK prior to the race massacre of 1921 (Image: Oklahoma State University)
Today, a highway covers much of the area that became known as Black Wall Street; hiding the history of hard-won economic freedom and entrenched racial animus. Generations of black entrepreneurs and investors have been inspired by the story of Tulsa’s Greenwood. Greenwood is, perhaps, the best-known of the many black economic zones—known as Black Wall Streets—that flourished in the early 20th century.
In May 2018, Dream Tulsa is bringing a group of black entrepreneurs and innovators from around the nation to Tulsa. They will be immersed in the history of Greenwood and enticed to move to Tulsa to rebuild Black Wall Street.
Black Enterprise Contributor Brandon Andrews sat down with Dream Tulsa coordinator Onikah Asamoa-Caesar to talk about the legacy of Black Wall Street and ambitious plans to spark a new movement for economic freedom in Tulsa and beyond.
Black Wall Street has become a rallying cry for economic independence. The modern #BankBlack and #BuyBlack movements trace their roots to the story of Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood District. Many people are familiar with the name, but what’s one thing people may not know about Black Wall Street?
A lot of people don’t realize both the tragedy and triumph of Black Wall Street, which in Tulsa was the name for the Greenwood District; an economically thriving community with well over 300 black-owned businesses, including banks, movie theatres, hospitals, hotels, and much more.
The race massacre of 1921, historically known as the 1921 Race Riot, is considered by some to be the first documented case of the U.S. using airstrikes against its own citizens. The entire Greenwood District was burned to the ground by white Tulsans, including members of law enforcement and government, and that history was not meaningfully addressed for decades.
In the mid-1990’s, community leaders and lawmakers began the process of really peeling back the layers of that history and now, as a community, we are working toward ensuring that it is no longer hidden.
Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK after the race massacre of 1921 (Image: Oklahoma State University)
The Tulsa Race Riot set fire to the Greenwood District in 1921. What’s happened in Greenwood since then?
The Greenwood community began rebuilding immediately after the massacre. Black Wall Street was fully rebuilt by 1925 and reached its economic peak in 1941. That part of the story is often missing. So often, people focus on the massacre and fail to mention the resilience of the community. Black Wall Street rose from the ashes. Can you imagine? After having been bombed, looted, and burned down, the Greenwood community banded together and started the process of rebuilding. And what the community built in the aftermath was even more glorious than what had been destroyed. Many of the recent videos that surfaced show footage of Black Wall Street after its rebirth.
However, progress was short lived. Insurance claims were ultimately denied, unrealistic policies about building materials were enacted, a highway was built that, to this day, runs right through the Greenwood District. It was that type of systemic racism, along with other deep-seated social and economic forces, that crippled Black Wall Street in the long term and continues to plague communities of color across the nation.
Can the dearth of economic development in Greenwood and North Tulsa more generally be traced back to the Tulsa Race Riot, or are there other factors?
When I first moved to Tulsa for Teach America in 2013, I looked at my classroom of first graders and thought to myself, these are the descendants of those who built Black Wall Street, one of the greatest centers of economic wealth for African Americans in this country. And, as I looked around at the condition of the school and community, I could not help but see the direct link between the destruction of Black Wall Street and the issues that my students faced every single day. I think that had the race massacre not occurred, my first graders would have been living a very different reality.
Rebuilt Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK. (Image: Oklahoma State University)
Rebuilding Black Wall Street or building Black Wall Street in communities across the nation has been talked about since the story of the Greenwood District became more well known. Is rebuilding Black Wall Street the goal of Dream Tulsa? And how did Dream Tulsa come about?
Dream Tulsa is the result of young African American professionals coming to together in Tulsa to figure out how to attract and retain top talent. Dream Tulsa is also working to invest in homegrown talent that is already present in Tulsa. And talent is just one aspect of the work. We are working alongside the countless others who are working to rebuild Black Wall Street every day.
The spirit of Black Wall Street is very much alive and there is a growing momentum around reclaiming a legacy that was so brutally interrupted. We know that in order to do that, we need talented people that are willing to continue building on the work that is already happening. Dream Tulsa is just one small part of that puzzle. We hope to recruit black entrepreneurs and working professionals from around the country who want to be a part of building the new Black Wall Street.
Dream Tulsa was created to invest in black-owned businesses, grow and recruit black entrepreneurs to Tulsa, and spur economic development in the Greenwood District and beyond. Why is the George Kaiser Family Foundation supporting Dream Tulsa?
The mission of the George Kaiser Family Foundation is to ensure that every child receives an equal opportunity to succeed. We are approaching this work through the lens of opportunity and equity. We know that there is a difference in the opportunities available for black entrepreneurs. Dream Tulsa is one way to go about ensuring that more people are able to experience the fruits of the current growth in entrepreneurship in Tulsa. Focusing, in this iteration, on black entrepreneurs and working professionals is one way to do that.
How does Dream Tulsa work and what kind of businesses are you looking to grow/support in Tulsa?
Dream Tulsa is bringing together a couple dozen ambitious and curious entrepreneurs and professionals from around the country who are energized by the prospect of building a New Black Wall Street in the city that birthed the original Black Wall Street. Tulsa is a city well positioned to experience exponential growth in the coming years. Tulsa will be the No. 1 destination for entrepreneurs of color.
Throughout the weekend, participants will receive a high-level overview of the work happening in Tulsa, connect with heads of industry, local philanthropists, civic leaders, community advocates among many others. Our goal is for Dream Tulsa participants to be exposed to the myriad opportunities that exist across the city. We will be helping to facilitate the connections and experiences that will compel them to #ChooseTulsa.
The 2016 shooting death of unarmed Terence Crutcher by a white police officer may be the last memory many African Americans have of Tulsa. What progress has Tulsa made since 2016, and what could a black entrepreneur expect if they moved to the city?
We still have a long way to go. A recent study showed that Tulsa has two of the top 12 zip codes in the country for incarceration rates and both of those zip codes are in North Tulsa, a predominantly African American community.
At the same time, we also have amazing organizations and initiatives addressing the issues head-on. Still She Rises, a project of the Bronx defenders provides free holistic legal defense to mothers involved in the criminal justice system. The Mayor’s office launched a community policing initiative with a citizen advisory and action group. A group of young black professionals organized Resilient Innovative Social Entrepreneurs (RISE), an organization committed to empowering, educating, and unifying urban professionals and they are one of the organizations that created the Dream Tulsa initiative. Community members are coming together and organizing to triumph over tragedy and build the community that we want not only for ourselves but also for our children.
These are just a few of the things that keep me hopeful about our future. Anyone who moves here will see how far we have to go, but they will also see dedicated and passionate individuals leading the charge for change.
What is the current state of the startup scene in Tulsa?
Forbes named Tulsa the No.1 city in the country for young entrepreneurs. It was also named the No. 1 place for women entrepreneurs. We have organizations like 36 Degrees North, which is a base camp for entrepreneurship, and the Forge, that helps accelerate the development of startups in Tulsa.
In short, if you are a young entrepreneur, Tulsa is a great place to be right now.