Remembering Our Past …for such a time as this

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Black Wall Street was an African American community during the early 1900s, located in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla. The Greenwood District was one the most prosperous areas in the United States, not just Oklahoma.

In 1906 O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American from Arkansas, moved to Tulsa and purchased over 40 acres of land, which was only saleable to African Americans. Gurley intentionally provided opportunities specifically for those migrating from the harsh oppression of Mississippi.

This modern majestic, sophisticated unapologetically Black area boasted of banks, cafes, clothiers, hotels, movie theaters and contemporary homes. Moreover, Greenwood had such luxuries as indoor plumbing, hospitals and a remarkable school system which superiorly educated Black children. According to Ebony Magazine, the average income of Black families exceeded the minimum wage of today, and segregation meant the dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, remaining in Greenwood for approximately a year before leaving the community. Even more impressive, during that era was Oklahoma State had only two airports, yet six Black families owned private planes.

As a result of jealous desires “to put progressive, high achieving African-Americans in their place,” a wave of white domestic terrorism led to Black dispossession. On May 31, 1921, a black male was accused of attempted rape of a Drexel Building elevator operator, a white woman. While accounts vary, he was subsequentially arrested. The Tulsa Tribune’s racial inflammatory accounting caused racial-defined mobs to form at the courthouse. Scuffles broke out, shots were fired, and the out-numbered Blacks retreated, with the enraged white mob not far behind. As the mob encroached into Greenwood, they began looting and burning businesses and homes, resulting in 35 blocks going up in flames. Official reports state 300 people died, 800 were injured, and over 9,000 became homeless.

Many accounts state the Tulsa police actively contributed to the riots by allowing mobs to form and deputizing armed whites without discretion, multiplying the police force exponentially. Not even Greenwood’s superior economic status could save them from the racial white hostility and violence of that era. Many survivors recount disturbing details about what truly transpired that night. Eye-witnesses state that private planes were on reconnaissance missions, and claim the area was bombed from above by kerosene or nitroglycerin, which caused the inferno to rage more aggressively.

Because many whites were former residents of Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, [and] Texas, they failed to leave their anti-Negro prejudices behind in the Deep South. These former Southerners passionately believed they were “members of a divinely ordered superior race,” despite many Blacks in Tulsa who were substantially wealthier. Moreover, The Tulsa World inflamed racial tensions by suggesting that the Ku Klux Klan could “restore order to the community.” The mere suggestion of utilizing the KKK from a mainstream newspaper demonstrated how white supremacy was not only legitimized, but also promoted with legal impunity. In essence, the destruction of this successful African American community was no accident — it was orchestrated to put Black people back in their place, by reasserting white dominance. More importantly, the government worked with private industry to bring down prices and obtain land, wealth and prosperity for whites at the expense of Black people.

(Mrs. Jesse Gooding is presenting a series of articles on how current social unrest in America, and more importantly Colleton County, has been shaped by the past. These articles document the social injustices experienced by African Americans, post-slavery. “They are presented to help us all learn that while all lives do indeed matter, Black lives need to be centered, currently, so racial relations can evolve into a more cohesive dynamic, for all!” Gooding said.)

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