We Must Not Forget Black Wall Street

Renowned Harvard Law professor and civil rights attorney Charles Ogletree recently sent an email to scores of attorneys, journalists and professionals – including myself – marking a day of tragedy that all African Americans should never forget. On May 31, 1921, a thriving African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma – a hub of pride and entrepreneurship that celebrated scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois dubbed “Black Wall Street”  – was destroyed on that fateful day during a devastating race riot.

The damage to the Greenwood District, then considered the wealthiest black community in the US with several grocery stores, two independent newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs and a number of churches, was massive. A mob of roughly 10,000 armed whites had run amok, enraged over allegations that a white woman had been molested by a young black man, descending upon the town’s black inhabitants overnight. During the rampage that lasted 16 hours, the mob obliterated a 42-square-block of Greenwood, burning the community to the ground. More than 10,000 African Americans were left homeless and an estimated 300 were killed.

In 2003, Ogletree was joined by noted attorneys that included the late Johnnie Cochran, Michele Roberts, Dennis Sweet, Willie Gary, Suzette Malveaux and Adjoa Aiyetoro, a longtime activist and legal counsel for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, in filing a suit on behalf of the Tulsa Race Riot Survivors. “We filed claims in Oklahoma and elsewhere and were turned down by the district and circuit courts … The Supreme Court refused to grant us a hearing,” the founder and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice stated in his email correspondence. “We were joined in our efforts on behalf of the Tulsa Race Riot Survivors by Chicago Alderwomen Dorothy Tillman, United States Congresswoman Maxine Waters and many other officials as we pursue our claims for justice.”

More than a decade later,  he said, hundreds of Tulsa Race Riot Survivors have died and the best estimate is that only about a dozen have survived, including 99-year-old Dr. Olivia Hooker and 97-year-old Wess Young.  He further asserted: “Our battle for justice continues and we suggest that you say a prayer today for those Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riot children today.”

Throughout the years, BLACK ENTERPRISE has covered Black Wall Street so that generations would remember what this the promise that community represented at its zenith as well as the abominable act that led to its devastation. That riot was not only another episode of tremendous human loss but the decimation of black wealth and advancement that set back large numbers of African American families for decades. In fact, I interviewed John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Investments L.L.C. (No. 7 on the BE ASSET MANAGERS List with $4.9 billion in assets under management) during our 35th anniversary in 2005 about his personal connection to the Tulsa Race Riot. It inspired him, in part, to develop the first black-owned mutual fund and become a leading proponent of African American financial empowerment. He told me that in the 1910s his grandfather J.B. Stradford owned a 65-room hotel, a savings and loan institution and other real estate in Tulsa, and how that early model of black affluence was wiped out by that vicious mob. As a result, Rogers has used investing as a means to build lasting wealth.

BLACK ENTERPRISE also spoke to Tulsa Riot survivor Hooker several years ago in a BlackEnterprise.com report as she recalled the horror she witnessed as a 6-year-old child. “I had been in school for two years and I knew about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I thought it pertained to me until that day,” she reflected. “It took a long time for me to really get to the point where I could sleep well.”

She said that her father and grandfather, Hank and Samuel Hooker, owners of one of the most prominent clothing stores in Greenwood, lost more than $100,000 in goods. Moreover, the two men were placed in an internment camp and when they were finally returned home, all of the family’s valuables had been either stolen or destroyed.

In 2008, director and producer Reginald Turner screened “Before They Die!,”  a documentary detailing the accounts of several survivors and Ogletree to petition the courts for reparations. At the time, Turner was able to raise $1 million from the Executive Leadership Council, the network of the most senior African American corporate executives, to get some of the survivors to share their stories to audiences across the country. And ELC members also persuaded American Express, JPMorgan Chase, the Bank of New York Mellon, the New York Stock Exchange, Deloitte & Touche, and Merrill Lynch to underwrite additional screenings.

“Our efforts with the film are to do what the government has not done, and that is to find a way to get reparations for them before they die,” Denise Clement, Turner’s cousin who helped produce the film and interview survivors from Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois, New York, California, and Virginia said at the time. “The people in Rosewood, Florida, [an African American town where a massacre occurred in 1923], Japanese Americans who were in interned during World War II, victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, and families and victims of Sept.11 have all been compensated. The only people who have not been compensated were the survivors of Tulsa 1921.”

That is why we must never forget the tragedy of Black Wall Street and other such atrocities. These victims and their families deserve reparations for the enormous human and financial cost they suffered as well as emotional scars that will never heal.

So we must follow the lead of Ogletree and others. We can all play a valuable role in making sure that this story is retold through traditional and social media – and not just on the anniversary date. Moreover, let’s commit to taking necessary action – including supporting legal and civil rights groups as well as applying pressure on congressional representatives – to ensure that we win this battle for justice.