Known as ‘Black Wall Street’ in the early 20th century, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was home to one of the US’s most prominent concentrations of African-American businesses. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre changed that but today, Black Tulsans have once again reclaimed a piece of Greenwood.
On an unseasonably warm and sunny February weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the tidy brick buildings and clean streets in the Greenwood District are busy with families. Children’s laughter echoes through the air and you’ll probably spot the colorful Black Wall Street mural painted by local artist Chris “Sker” Rogers—but the orderly blocks hold no sign of the tragedy that occurred here a century ago.
In the early 20th century, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was known as Black Wall Street—the area had one of the most prominent concentrations of Black businesses in the United States. Greenwood was a bustling cultural and economic haven for Tulsa’s Black residents, home to a theater, restaurants, banks and doctors’ offices.
Within the 35 blocks of the Greenwood District, Tulsa’s Black community supported one another and thrived despite pervasive racism and segregation. But that all changed on May 31, 1921 when one of the worst instances of racial violence in the history of the United States occurred.
“Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District is both inspirational and aspirational,” Johnson tells me. “The historical role models who created the Greenwood District and made it into a nationally-renowned Black business and entrepreneurial hub did so against great odds, not the least of which was systemic racism in its most blatant forms.
He says the indomitable human spirit they exemplified is the stuff of inspiration. “They set the bar high for future generations,” says Johnson, “offering up something to which Black Tulsans and others could, for generations, aspire.”
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Around the corner from Greenwood Rising, I stop for a refreshing iced coffee at Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge, before browsing the graphic tees The Greenwood Gallery and colorful kicks at Silhouette Sneakers & Art next door, where owner Venita Cooper brightly welcomes every potential customer who walks through the door.
“Some of my neighbors are first-time entrepreneurs just like me,” Cooper says. “So we have definitely come together to help one another and support each other’s businesses.”
As daylight wanes, I stop at Fulton Street Books & Coffee, where at least 70 per cent of the books are written by or feature BIPOC or marginalized communities. I pick up Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink, a historical fiction account of the Tulsa Race Massacre, to read on the flight home. There’s so much optimism in Greenwood now, but it was a long hard road to make these streets feel like a safe haven and celebration of Black success once more.
The smell of fried chicken wafting through the air piques my interest when I step outside again and I follow my nose to Wanda J’s, a third-generation, family-owned restaurant run by five sisters serving the best soul food in town. Here, Glory Wells and her sisters are keeping their grandmother’s legacy alive with their home cooking—their legendary chicken is based on their grandmother’s recipes—opening their restaurant in Greenwood in 2016.
Wells says she loves meeting and building relationships with her customers, both regulars or visitors, and watching them chow down. “Being a small business owner on Greenwood is a blessing,” she says. “The area has such a rich history. My sisters and I grew up in the family business, but now we are using everything we’ve learned over the years to run a business ourselves.”