Black Tulsans prevailed against odds to create success
BY ROBERT EVATT World Staff Writer
Feb 12, 2003
1/20/13 at 8:40 AM
This 1938 photo captured a moment in the daily life of Archer Street at Greenwood Avenue. Once known as 'Black
Wall Street,' the Greenwood district was rebuilt by black residents after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and flourished through the mid 1950s.
Though Oklahoma was officially designated a refuge for American Indians, blacks became some of the first settlers in the area.
And by the 1900s, these pioneers developed the black Greenwood district into one of the most vibrant areas of Tulsa.
The first group of black settlers arrived during the 1830s and 1840s,
according to Tulsa author and historian Hannibal Johnson's "Black Wall
Many slaves accompanied American Indian tribes during the forced relocation
of the Five Civilized Tribes to Oklahoma on The Trail of Tears, according
to Johnson in the book.
At the same time, blacks seeking refuge from legal discrimination in other
areas of the United States flocked to Indian Territory.
Tulsa, officially incorporated in 1898, grew quickly because of the oil
boom. Blacks flocked to the majority-white town, and many of them worked as
laborers or servants throughout the city. However, they were barred from
opening retail or professional businesses, and could not build houses in
The Greenwood district, centered around Greenwood Avenue northeast of
downtown, became a separate business community out of necessity.
"It was one of the few areas in Tulsa where blacks were able to buy blocks
of property," said Eddie Faye Gates, a longtime Tulsa educator, historian
and author. "They weren't allowed to develop anywhere they wanted to, as
The first businesses to spring up, such as groceries and clothing stores,
served the basic needs of the community.
Within a short period of time, however, enterprising black businessmen set
up hotels, restaurants, jazz clubs, barbershops, drug stores, doctors'
offices, law firms and dental practices, among other types of firms to
provide almost every kind of service blacks were denied in other areas of
Johnson, in "Black Wall Street," conveys the success of the district through
the words of Mabel B. Little:
"Black businesses flourished. I remember Huff's Cafe on Cincinnati and
Archer. It was a thriving meeting place in the black community. You could go
there almost anytime, and just about anybody who was anybody would be there
or on their way."
Legendary educator Booker T. Washington was so moved by Greenwood that he
gave the prosperous area its enduring nickname, "Black Wall Street."
However, tensions grew between Greenwood and white Tulsa, as the two
economies began to compete. Additionally, Gates said, white businessmen
coveted the area's land.
"People wanted Tulsa to be known as a railroad town, and there was a big
push for expansion. But the whites had run out of places to expand."
Between May 31 and June 1 1921, a white woman's accusation of an attack at
the hands of a black man sparked a massive riot within Greenwood.
By noon, at least 38 lay dead and more than 1,000 businesses, houses and
churches were burned to the ground. (See accompanying article in this
Yet the spirit of the area was not broken, and black homeowners and
businessmen quickly re-established themselves. By 1922, more than half the
churches resumed services, and 80 businesses reopened.
"In 1926, the National Negro Business League's annual meeting was held in
Greenwood," Gates said. "That's quite a tribute to the area's
Greenwood thrived through the 1950s, but social change eroded the district.
Relaxing racial attitudes allowed blacks the opportunity to live, shop and
conduct business in white areas, and many entrepreneurs leapt at the
opportunity. A growing trend toward large, nationally operated shops further
threatened the small stores within Greenwood.
Finally, urban renewal efforts bought out many black businesses, only to
leave the buildings barren.
"Urban renewal came through, and it always takes away the land of the
weakest segments of the city," said Gates.
By 1970, no businesses remained. The elevated roads of Interstate 244 soon
divided the core of the district.
Greenwood did not remain empty for long.
The Greenwood Cultural Center, and the adjoining Mabel Little Heritage
Museum, bring the area's tragic and proud history to life. Smooth music can
be heard coming from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, especially on
Juneteenth, an event that draws an estimated 30,000 people to the area each
And the African-American Resource Center at nearby Rudisill Regional Library
remains the only center of its kind in the state.
Today's Greenwood isn't just historical reflection. The Greenwood Chamber of
Commerce has attracted a number of modern businesses operating within a
block of restored buildings.
Robert Evatt, World staff writer, can be reached at 259-9650 or via e-mail at