greenwood district

 

The history of the Greenwood District and North Tulsa is filled with great successes and tragedies. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma was known as “Black Wall Street.” The discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws of the time limited shopping, commercial and land ownership by African-Americans to only the north side of Tulsa. As a result, the African-American community developed a profoundly successful and enviable infrastructure. Prior to 1921, the 36 square block area, known as “Little Africa”, encompassed hundreds of businesses and approximately 11,000 people. Among these African American residents were several PhD’s, attorneys, doctors and many people who had earned advanced degrees. There were 21 churches, 212 restaurants, 2 movie theaters and more than four hundred (400) businesses in North Tulsa at that time. All of this changed in the late spring of 1921. On May 31, 1921 a mob of approximately 2,000 white people assembled outside of the Tulsa Courthouse and jail in anticipation of the possible lynching of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. A group of fifty to seventy-five black men arrived at the scene. In hopes of preventing the lynching, a shot was fired. The tension which had reached an uncontainable level, exploded into one of the worst race riots in American history. By the time order was restored two days later, “Black Wall Street” had burned to the ground. The Black man accused of molesting the white female elevator operator was acquitted. The official report of the riot is listed thirty-six people killed. Working from 1997 through 2001, a legislated state appointed Race Riot Commission found that three hundred people may have been killed. Following the riot, survivors struggled to come back from the devastation. But in an attempt to force out any remaining African-Americans, city officials passed an ordinance requiring all new buildings in the Greenwood District be fireproof construction. Such construction was simply unaffordable for most of the remaining people and may left Tulsa never to return. Those people that did stay endeavored to rebuild, and the buildings that currently front North Greenwood Avenue, north of Archer Street, are testaments of their fortitude of courage. One of these African-American leaders was attorney, B.C. Franklin. It was Franklin who argued against the “fireproof ordinance” before the Oklahoma Supreme Court and succeeded in having the ordinance revoked. During the 30s and 40s, the Greenwood District experienced something of a revival. A group of North Tulsa businessmen formed the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and the Greenwood Business District became one of the region’s leading centers of Black business and commerce and Jazz music. The Greenwood area became a popular stopping point for many jazz musicians as they made their way between Chicago, Kansas City and New Orleans, and by 1941 was home to six hundred (600) Black-owned businesses. Following World War II, the City of Tulsa revoked the laws banning Black citizens from shopping in South Tulsa. This shift in commerce, from North Tulsa to South Tulsa led to a drastic depletion of circulating currency in North Tulsa, The community has struggled ever since to recover from the loss of capital investment and expenditure in the area. The community of North Tulsa has survived the deprivation effects of racism, riots and urban renewal. Through the programs and services of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, and others, revitalization of the economic, political and social life of North Tulsa is underway. Today, the Greenwood Business District of North Tulsa is home to thirteen (13) businesses, eight (8) non-profit organizations, six (6) city and state agencies and two (2) churches that survived the 1921 race riot: Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) and Mount Zion Baptist Church.

 

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