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Building Back Black Wall Street

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Book cover of "The Victory of Greenwood"

Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press, All Souls’ book publishing imprint, 2021

Black Wall Street, or the historically Black neighborhood Greenwood, Oklahoma is the site of a once prosperous, thriving, Black community. It is also the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a violent attack waged by white supremacists, killing hundreds of residents and leveling homes and businesses. 

In the second episode of our three part Black History Month series, we talk about how the community built back. In fact, Greenwood’s economic heyday came 20 years later, in the 1940s. Then came the 1950s-60s, when Urban Renewal projects gave the city of Tulsa federal funds to buy out Black land owners. This loss of ownership undercut Greenwood’s very existence. Now Greenwood Okies, pulling from their history, are building Tulsa’s future, despite continued discrimination.

Featuring:

  • Bracken Klar –  Co-Executive Producer of Focus: Black Oklahoma, Vice-President of Tulsa’s Tri-City Collective
  • Carlos Moreno  –  member of Tulsa’s Tri-City Collective, journalist and author of The Victory of Greenwood and A Kid’s Book About the Tulsa Race Massacre
  • Trey Thaxton – CEO and Founder of Goldmill Co. and Greenwood Ave.

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Amy Gastelum
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar

Music:

  • Blue Dot Sessions: Krotoa Haze, Cheldana Outpost, Krotoa Hills
  • Count Basie and His Orchestra: April in Paris

 

Transcript:

Show Button: Our system is, in too many ways, broken. The way we see the world shapes the way that we treat it. This is making contact.

Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum, and on today’s Making Contact, we’re observing Black History Month with the second in a three-part series focused on Greenwood, Oklahoma. Last week, we talked to Kala Lea, who produced the award-winning podcast series, Tulsa Burning.

The series tells the story of how a group of white people attacked Tulsa’s prosperous Black neighborhood, Greenwood, in 1921. The attackers leveled buildings and killed hundreds. This week, we’re going to talk about what happened next.

Bracken Klar: After the destruction of Greenwood 1921, by 1922, it had been rebuilt. By 1923, it was bigger and more prosperous than it was in 1921. So in two years, you had another thriving, exceptional, community.

Amy Gastelum: We’ll also talk in more detail about what Greenwood achieved after the massacre, what brought the community to its knees again in the 1960s, and we’ll talk about the conservative backlash to the recent truthful telling of the massacre.

Carlos Moreno:  Any sort of healing can’t happen until we talk about that, but we’ve made a law explicitly limiting that conversation.

Amy Gastelum: Stay with us.

(music)

Amy Gastelum: A lot of people have heard about Greenwood, a neighborhood in North Tulsa that was also called Black Wall Street because of its prosperity in the early 1900s. But its prosperity isn’t the reason most people know about Greenwood. They know about Greenwood because in 1921, a group of white people attacked the area for three days during what’s now called the Tulsa Race Massacre. The recent centennial of the attack was widely covered, so that’s what people think about. But Tulsa-based journalist and activist Carlos Moreno says the attack itself isn’t the end of the story.

Carlos Moreno: I think that what sort of gets glossed over is like the massacre happened and you know, then Greenwood is silent for a hundred years. And then all of a sudden there’s this thing called Greenwood again in 2021. Um, and nothing could be further from the truth, right?

Amy Gastelum: Let’s back up. If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, now’s your chance to find it in your favorite podcast feed or at our website, radioproject.org. If you listen, you’ll learn that Greenwood was one of many communities founded by and for Black and Indigenous people at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the person’s name on the deed of sale of the land that would become Greenwood is Emma Gurley. A black woman. The Gurleys and other Black residents did very well for themselves in Greenwood. The place was booming, economically. Here’s Kala Lea, who produced the podcast series, Tulsa Burning.

 Kala Lea: Greenwood had a library, their own school, uh, two movie theaters, I believe, hundreds of businesses from furriers to, you know, cafes, restaurants, um, establishments where there was live music, butchers, just everything, candy shops. It was just like a, you know, a thriving community and neighborhood.

Amy Gastelum: But on Memorial Day weekend in 1921, a Black elevator operator, Dick Rowland, was accused of groping a white woman. Roland was arrested and brought to Tulsa’s courthouse. There, a group of white people, mostly men gathered outside. This group grew and began an attack on Greenwood for his supposed crime.

Some believe the three-day attack that followed, which included explosives and airstrikes, was actually a coordinated and pre-planned event, not just the work of an angry mob.

Greenwood was leveled, and hundreds of people were killed. Of course, the attackers didn’t talk about the event and out of survival for decades neither did the residents. The centennial of the attack in 2021 brought attention and resources and some long overdue dialogue. Now, Tulsa activists and residents are piecing together the history of Greenwood.

Carlos Moreno, the journalist we heard from before,  said there’s a lot we still don’t know about Greenwood. I sat down with Carlos and Bracken Klar to find out more. Bracken is co-producer of KOSU’s radio show, Focus: Black Oklahoma, and Carlos is a regular contributor. The show is one of several projects taken on by Tulsa’s Tri City Collective. They’re an organization dedicated to diversity and inclusion through community education.

Amy Gastelum: Hello, Bracken. Hello, Carlos. How are you?

Bracken Klar: I’m doing well.

Carlos Moreno: Yeah, doing good.

Amy Gastelum: Great. Me too.

Bracken and Carlos told me one thing folks outside Tulsa don’t often realize is that Greenwood was rebuilt after the attack within a year.

Carlos Moreno: there’s video footage of Greenwood from 1924 that like the Smithsonian mistook for being from before the massacre, because they couldn’t fathom that this neighborhood could rebuild, um, but they did, and just like, we’re just now figuring out the history of what happened afterwards,

Amy Gastelum: Some information is coming in the form of insurance claims victims filed after the attack. Here’s Carlos again.

Carlos Moreno: it’s 5, 000 pages worth of court case files. There’s itemized lists of things that were lost. So you have a family, that lists like we lost furniture, we lost our house, we lost our car, we lost You know, our, our photographs, our record player, our clothes, you know, and they’re listing all these things on,,  paperwork they have to turn in to the court in Tulsa and we’re still trying to understand what was lost, and we’re still trying to understand how it came back,

Amy Gastelum: Carlos and others are working to understand how that happened, how Greenwood could have rebuilt, something we don’t talk about as much when we talk about Greenwood.

Carlos Moreno: We talk about the tragedy in specifics. We talk about excellence in the abstract. We know there were millionaires. Okay. How many? We don’t know. We don’t know that.

I can show you the videos of Greenwood’s prosperity in the 20s and in the late 50s, but I can’t tell you specifically Block by block or house by house who built where or, or when that all happened. Those details are not known.

Amy Gastelum: But those details are becoming known. Carlos and other activists, archivists, and scholars are working on a project called Mapping Greenwood. The project uses census data, court records, land deeds, lawsuits, photography, eyewitness accounts, and more. Together, the information is analyzed and added to an actual map. The map creates a visualization of the prosperity of Greenwood, the specifics. It shows life before the 1921 massacre, it shows the scope of the destruction, and the miracle of the rebuild.

Carlos Moreno: And even just like wrapping our heads around. Oh, it came back. Like, what does that even mean?

Bracken Klar: Like within a year, like…

Carlos Moreno: Yeah. And like that. Did I show you that map?

Bracken Klar: I don’t think so.

Amy Gastelum: Okay, at this point in the conversation between the three of us, I got a sense of what it must be like to be an activist in Tulsa right now. It’s exciting. I got to listen in real time while Carlos filled Bracken in on a cool update to the Mapping Greenwood project. They’ve mapped the historic boundaries of the community.

Carlos Moreno: Greenwood was like five times bigger than anyone has ever imagined. It wasn’t 40 blocks. It was like, it was like 200 acres. It was, it was, insert expletive here…

Bracken Klar: Yeah.

Carlos Moreno: …enormous, like, and like bled into even another town called Dawson. So like that entire North Tulsa area was all one contiguous, like, black community. It’s, when you see it, I will show you this map one day, when you see it, it will, yeah, it will blow your mind. Everyone I’ve shown this to is like, this changes everything we know about Greenwood.

Bracken Klar: Right.

Carlos Moreno: and, um, Mimi at the School of Law is like, where did you get this? I’m like, we built it. We painstakingly built it by hand using census records combining those with county land records. Spending evenings and weekends adding to a map. It’s Astonishing

Bracken Klar: That’s super cool.

Carlos Moreno: Like nobody even knows this. When we, like, unveil this map to, like, the world, it’s gonna, like, it rewrites everything that we even know about Greenwood, just period.

Amy Gastelum: Carlos told me that getting the history of Greenwood right is absolutely essential. He said history gets distorted over time. And Greenwood’s history, like so many Black communities nationwide, has been actively erased. He said there’s motive to make the massacre less of an atrocity or frame the conversation as something that happened so long ago, we should just forget about it and move on. It’s harder to do that when you have information you can trace to a historical source or tie to a specific name and address. Historical data helps us understand how and why things happen. In this case, it helps us understand a super important part of the reason that Greenwood was able to rebuild. It had to do with who held the deeds to the land. Here’s Bracken.

Bracken Klar the difference between Greenwood and Harlem or, um, Detroit or wherever is that Black folks from Tulsa owned the land.They didn’t rent from anybody. They owned the land.

Amy Gastelum: Okay, Black folks owned the land in Tulsa because of ties with Native American tribes. Let me explain. Five native owned black Americans as slaves: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. These are sometimes called the five civilized tribes. When enslaved African Americans were emancipated, they became members of the tribal nations that had enslaved them. Collectively, these freed people were called Freedmen. The Freedmen were subject to the laws of their tribal nations, some of which were more accommodating than the United States federal government.  Freedmen who became citizens of the Cherokee nation, for example, were immediately able to vote in local and national elections, and by 1875, the first Freedman held political office. That’s not to say their rights were always protected, but the rules in tribal nations, they were just different from the U S federal government.

Carlos Moreno: While there was racism in tribes, like, tribal people were more willing to sell land to, like, black folks,

Amy Gastelum: Black folks owned the land in Greenwood. It had been scorched, but it was still theirs. So after the attack, they could rebuild and they did, but they rebuilt in the face of laws passed to prevent it. Here’s Bracken again.

Bracken Klar: The city tried to not let people rebuild over three stories. it was illegal to sell materials to people in Greenwood. you can see it today in that, like, there will be different colored bricks that make up buildings there, uh, because Black, um, counties or Black cities from all over the nation were selling bricks and supplies to people in Greenwood, so these buildings are being put together by bricks from, like, you know, the west coast, uh, way up north, way out east, uh, you know, all over the place.

After the destruction of Greenwood 1921, by 1922, it had been rebuilt by 1923, it was bigger and more prosperous than it was in 1921. So in two years, you had another thriving, um, exceptional, uh, community.

Amy Gastelum: This thriving community is described in detail in Carlos’s book, The Victory of Greenwood. He wrote it so that the massacre doesn’t overshadow what happened next. He says that’s often what happens.

Carlos Moreno: And so we fast forward through a hundred years of history not remembering that Count Basie stayed in Greenwood in 1926 and borrowed the sounds that he was hearing in the streets from a band called the Oklahoma Blue Devils, hired a lot of the band members to work with his band, changed his entire outlook and philosophy about music, brings that sound with him to Chicago and creates what we now know as swing jazz. Like, that doesn’t come from Chicago. It comes from Oklahoma.

Count Basie Song, April in Paris

Amy Gastelum: Carlos says the economic height of prosperity of Greenwood was in the 1940s,

Carlos Moreno: When you had this incredibly diverse, pedestrian, transit-oriented, Mixed-use, mixed-income…. All the urbanist buzzwords that are kind of the utopia for a thriving city, Greenwood was the living, breathing example of that. Not once, but twice. What, all these highbrow institutes want for our city? Like. You don’t have to figure out what that looks like. There’s already an example of it and it’s called Greenwood.

Amy Gastelum: But this dense, diverse, transit-oriented, urbanist utopia wouldn’t last.

Carlos Moreno: The first intentionally built, suburban neighborhood where every house had central heating and air was Lortondale, across the street from where I am sitting right now in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The first suburban, car-oriented neighborhood that’s, six foot high fences and, you know, houses with enormous setbacks so they can have beautiful, green front lawns that destroy the planet, was in the same place that Greenwood was, and you know, everything that I just described, Greenwood stood for. So, you have this like competing philosophies of what a city should be living side by side. And in order for one of them to thrive, the other has to be destroyed, right? Like you can’t have that and have car-oriented extractive capitalism suburbia in the same place at the same time. That can’t exist. Like people have to choose one or the other. So, they did, and in the fifties, suburbia won.

Music

Salima: We are just jumping in to remind you that you’re listening to Making Contact. If you like today’s show and want more information, or if you’d like to leave us a comment, visit us at radioproject.org, where you can access today’s show and all of our prior episodes. And now, back to the show.

Music

Amy Gastelum: Welcome back to the show. Today we’re talking with journalist Carlos Moreno and Co-Producer of the Tulsa-based radio show Focus: Black Oklahoma, Bracken Klar. This is the second in a three-part series about the history of Greenwood, Oklahoma, a historically black neighborhood in North Tulsa. Before the break, Carlos talked about the success Greenwood experienced during the 1940s, but it wouldn’t last.

Suburbia, as Carlos described it, had a leg up in the form of the federal government. I’ll explain. in the 1950s and 60s, the federal government provided funding for cities to buy up land owned mostly by people of color through the Urban Renewal program. The rationale was that the municipalities would buy up “blighted” land or so-called “slums” and make it available for improved housing.

Cities all over the country aggressively targeted individuals to buy them out. During this time, people of color also lost their land by imminent domain for projects like highways and sports fields. Thousands of families and businesses and city centers were displaced. This is what happened in Greenwood. Now, Bracken says most of Greenwood isn’t owned by Black people anymore. It’s owned by the city.

Bracken Klar: Greenwood has a college on it that is not involved in Black Tulsa culture really at all. And it’s not really making any attempts to. Um, there’s a baseball field built there.

Amy Gastelum: When the baseball field was built, the city levied a special tax and downtown businesses essentially paid for it. So, Tulsa is able to rally for some projects, but even when the city says it’s centering Greenwood’s Black community, Bracken says there’s still no meaningful community partnership.

Bracken Klar: There is no money being set aside for Black businesses or Black development. The people who have come in and built, uh, the Greenwood Rising Center, there’s no effort by the city to make sure that it helps pay for or sustain a sort of Greenwood revitalization, uh, as compared to the ballpark.

Amy Gastelum: The Greenwood Rising Center is a kind of museum, opened by the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission under Senator Kevin Matthews. It’s a place to learn about the massacre and Greenwood before the attack. Critics say it exists because of Black pain, but doesn’t do enough to improve the lives and businesses of Black people living in Greenwood today. We didn’t get a chance to reach out to the Greenwood Rising Center, but their website says the Centennial Commission included key Greenwood stakeholders, including residents, when planning the center. They also outlined where the $30 million raised to mark the centennial of the massacre has been allocated. About $20 million went to the building and $1.5 million went to community grants, and economic development programming.

Bracken Klar: So in the reconstruction and the rebuilding of Greenwood today, Black residents are not being sort of listened to or considered, um, it’s people with money that are  developing it or doing it on their own and without regard to like, any sort of like, uh, concentration on, uh, building generational wealth or opportunities for Black Tulsans.

Amy Gastelum: Here’s Carlos.

Carlos Moreno: A lot of people try to, like, piece together, like, what’s going on in Greenwood now? There’s certainly a whole lot of entrepreneurial activity, from Fulton Street Books to Silhouette Sneakers to Greenwood Ave to Goldmill to Fire in Little Africa to, The Popsicle Shop and Wanda J’s.  Um,  it’s all being done in spite of all this gentrification that’s happening and the reason the gentrification is happening is because, Black folks don’t own any of the land that they used to own.

So, you know, while Greenwood Rising is certainly important as a, as a center to educate people about the massacre, I think where it kind of falls short in some ways is perpetuating the narrative that, like, there was this thing that we called the 1921 race massacre that happened 100 years ago, and nothing’s happened ever since.

Amy Gastelum: Carlos says there are people still alive who remember that prosperous post-massacre, pre-urban renewal Greenwood. He says folks between the ages of early 50s to around 75 remember Latimer’s. Barbecue.

Carlos Moreno: And they remember how fun and amazing and awesome and just delicious Latimer’s barbecue was. And the reason they remember it so fondly is because it accepted everyone. It didn’t matter if you were Black, white, Latino, Asian, Jewish, like, like nobody cared. Everybody came to eat and enjoy at Latimer’s Barbecue.

Amy Gastelum: Despite the segregation at the time, Latimers and other Greenwood businesses didn’t enforce Jim Crow laws.

Carlos Moreno: And those were the kinds of spaces that Greenwood created. From the Dreamland Theater to Lula Williams Soda Shop, where it was said that there were more marriage proposals in the city of Tulsa, those are the kinds of spaces that could be created, if Tulsa only allowed it to happen, which I find sad, but also like points to a future that we know is possible because we’ve seen it and people remember it.

Amy Gastelum: Young people in Greenwood are pulling from the neighborhood’s vibrant history, and from that space, they’re working toward the future. Trey Thaxton recently launched Greenwood Ave. It’s an apparel shop and a magazine. Here’s a short clip from a promotional video.

Trey Thaxton: Greenwood Ave… It’s a celebration of the original pioneers and entrepreneurs that started Black Wall Street. There were over 600 shops down there, restaurants, banks, movie theaters that people just don’t know about. This is Tulsa’s history, this is America’s history, this is Black history.

Amy Gastelum: Carlos is a big fan of Greenwood Ave.

Carlos Moreno:  It speaks to like, the prosperity and joy that go hand in hand, that exists and could exist more if we just allowed it to happen.

Amy Gastelum: Bracken agrees.

Bracken Klar: I’m excited about a lot of stuff on Greenwood. Um, so many of the shop owners and shops and people there, um, are doing amazing things. People are succeeding against the system and it’s, it’s, there’s so much cool stuff going on.

Amy Gastelum: This system that Bracken is talking about, the way the city just works against Black prosperity… It’s happening at the state legislative level too. In 2021, the same year the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre pulled back the curtain on what really happened, Oklahoma passed a law that deeply limits the discussion of race in classrooms. It’s part of a larger network of laws affecting many States. You’ve heard of this, anti critical race theory laws.

According to PEN America, there are 307 bills across the nation that they’re calling educational gag orders. Essentially, they tell educators what they can and can’t talk about in their classrooms. Oklahoma’s House Bill, 1775 is so vaguely worded, it’s hard for teachers to know what’s allowed and what’s not. So, many teachers are simply self-censoring to avoid being fired. That means they just don’t talk about race. And while the language of the law is vague, the consequences are not. Several complaints against Oklahoma schools using the law have already been made, those in violation can have their accreditation status downgraded. Carlos and Bracken say not being able to talk about the history of the Tulsa race massacre, Greenwood’s rebuild, or the fallout of urban renewal is holding Tulsa back.

Bracken Klar: That’s extended to social emotional learning as well. Oklahoma is putting up barriers unnecessarily to our students’ success in that area, you know, communicate across difference and work with people from many different kinds of, um, lived experiences Tulsa is just not doing that. And not being allowed to.

Carlos Moreno: I’m really glad you brought that up because I think what people don’t realize about 1775 is In the very place that needs it the most, we’ve taken away the tools for not just people of color, but for white people

to break down why Oklahoma is what it is, and the tools to make it better.

Bracken Klar: Agree.

Carlos Moreno: it kind of goes back to what I was saying about just letting Tulsa be what it could be. Well, let’s get rid of 1775, first off. Like let’s get rid of that.

Like, Tulsa could be a really amazing, interesting, multicultural soup. Um, and it just, you have these weeds that are popping up in between the concrete that are amazing, but like, it could be all weeds. And that would be so dope.

Bracken Klar: I think also, asking community members, people that live there, what they need, what they would want, and then giving them the money to do that themselves.

So you’re not taking a think tank, that’s owned by the mayor or that’s owned by some connected politician, to go to that area, build this academically sound, like, plan, strategy, building, whatever, and then just saying like, you’re welcome, and bouncing. Versus giving the people who live there the money, uh, and the tools, uh, to build what they, what they feel they need.

So that I think would also help contribute to the, Tulsa becoming what it, what it could, sort of breaking out of the status quo and the sort of like old model of Tulsa into the, the place that it so desperately wants to become.

Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. You’ve been listening to Making Contact and an interview with Tulsa journalist Carlos Moreno and Bracken Klar, who co-produces the radio program Focus: Black Oklahoma. This has been the second in a series observing Black Month focused on the history of Greenwood, Oklahoma.

To listen to last week’s episode, visit our website at radioproject. org. Next week, we’re going to hear from Ms. Kristi Williams, a Tulsa activist who started a Black History Saturday school in the face of anti-critical race theory law, House Bill 1775.

Kristi Williams: When this house bill came about, I knew it was just like, Krisit, you have to make this happen. And I had no idea, Amy, I was like, how can I do this? Cause it was such a big vision. Right. And how can I make this happen?

Amy Gastelum: Listen right here next week. Take care.

(music)

Author: Radio Project

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