100 years after the Tulsa race massacre, African Americans still feel left out


At the foot of modern buildings in an anonymous street, a few discreet metal plates catch the eye.

“Grier Cordonnier”, “Earl real estate” – glued to the ground, they bear the names of black-owned businesses that once stood there before being destroyed in one of the worst racial massacres in the United States , in 1921.

A rare remnant of a neighborhood so prosperous it was called Black Wall Street, the plaques prove that the history of Greenwood – a historically black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma – is not understood by the monuments that stand today, but by those who are no longer there.

On the eve of a visit from President Joe Biden, popular with African-American voters, who will attend commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the massacre on Tuesday, and after a year marked by the Black Lives Matter movement, the murders are resonating more than ever.

Destroyed neighborhood

“They came and destroyed Greenwood and burned everything down,” said Bobby Eaton, 86, a local resident and former civil rights activist.

A century ago in the southern city of the United States, the arrest of a young black man accused of assaulting a white woman sparked one of the worst outbursts of racial violence ever seen in the country.

A truck transports African Americans during the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. | ALVIN C. KRUPNICK CO./ NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE’S FILES (NAACP) / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / VIA REUTERS

On May 31, 1921, following the arrest of Dick Rowland, hundreds of enraged whites gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse, signaling to black residents that a lynching – a common practice then and into the years 1960 – was imminent.

A group of African-American World War I veterans, some of them armed, mobilized in an attempt to protect Rowland.

Tensions increased and shots were fired. Fewer and fewer African-American residents retreated to Greenwood, known at the time for its economic prosperity and numerous businesses.

The next day, at dawn, white men looted and burned the buildings, chasing and beating the blacks who lived there. All day long they ransacked Black Wall Street – not only did the police fail to intervene but joined in the destruction – until all that remained was ruins and ashes, killing until 300 people in the process. The destruction left some 10,000 people homeless.

With a blue cap on his head and a T-shirt commemorating the centenary of the massacre rolled up on his shirt, Eaton feels marked by this event which he never saw but heard so much about as a child in the barber shop of his father.

The neighborhood of Greenwood is in ruins after a crowd passed during the racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921. |  NATIONAL AMERICAN RED CROSS / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / VIA REUTERS
The neighborhood of Greenwood is in ruins after a crowd passed during the racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921. | NATIONAL AMERICAN RED CROSS / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / VIA REUTERS

“I learned a lot about the riots as a very young child, it has never left my memory,” he said.

‘Don’t own the land’

In his opinion, like many others in the neighborhood, it was African-American prosperity that sparked the destruction. “It has caused a lot of jealousy, and it continues,” he says.

“That mentality that destroyed Greenwood at the start still exists to a large extent here in Tulsa,” added Eaton.

Even 100 years after the massacre, racial tensions remain high.

In the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge – a cafe named, like many Greenwood businesses, as a tribute to the neighborhood’s golden age – 32-year-old African-American Kode Ransom sports long dreadlocks and a big smile. greeting customers.

Happy co-manager of the company, he has one regret: not owning the walls around him.

Smoke rises from the ruins of African American homes after the 1921 racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  ALVIN C. KRUPNICK CO./ NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE'S FILES (NAACP) / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / VIA REUTERS
Smoke rises from the ruins of African American homes after the 1921 racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. ALVIN C. KRUPNICK CO./ NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE’S FILES (NAACP) / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / VIA REUTERS

“People hear ‘Black Wall Street’, they think it’s completely black controlled. It really isn’t, ”he said.

Ransom estimates that about 20 African-American-owned businesses exist in Greenwood, and they all pay rent.

“We don’t own the land,” he said.

An urban planning policy, known as urban renewal, carried out by the town hall of Tulsa since the 1960s, had the effect of driving out the African-American owners whose houses or businesses, deemed dilapidated, were demolished to make way for new buildings.

The construction of a seven-lane highway in the middle of the main street has finished disfiguring the neighborhood.

“Back when Greenwood was Greenwood, you had 40 blocks, and now it’s all condensed to half a street… and even on that half of a street, it’s still not really Black Wall Street. Ransom said with a sigh.

Forced out

A few meters from the café, in the Greenwood Art Gallery, director Queen Alexander, 31, organizes the paintings on display, which celebrate African-American culture.

She also pays rent – and it’s about to increase by 30%. The opening of a large museum dedicated to the history of the neighborhood, the Greenwood Rising History Center, which will officially open on Wednesday, has resulted in higher rents for surrounding businesses.

A man walks past a mural in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.  |  BLOOMBERG
A man walks past a mural in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. | BLOOMBERG

An acquaintance of her, who had run a beauty salon in Greenwood for over 40 years, was kicked out. “She couldn’t afford the rent,” Alexander said.

Outside the bay windows of his gallery, Alexandre observes gentrification at work.

“You now see white people walking their dogs and riding bikes, in neighborhoods where you would never have seen them before,” she said, noting the opening of a baseball field, Starbucks and “From a college that I probably couldn’t afford.” “

For her, Greenwood without its African-American owners and its historic buildings is no longer really Black Wall Street but “the district of Greenwood with a few black commercial leases”.

And “if we’re all kicked out tomorrow, it’s White Wall Street.”

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