Known as Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District was a hub of Black business and culture before it was devastated by racial violence. Few, especially white Americans, understand the significance of this event or location because knowledge about it was actively obscured, not taught in schools, nor discussed in popular culture. However, we at Trillium Asset Management believe that on this 100th anniversary we need to actively remember it and understand its role in shaping American economic and racial history.
The Greenwood District was an intentionally formed community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black entrepreneur, moved to Tulsa in 1906 and purchased 40 acres of land that he ensured was only sold to other Black people, wanting to create a space for Black people by Black people. While entering into different ventures such as becoming a hotelier, developing housing, and opening a mercantile business, Gurley also served as the financier of other Black-owned businesses, which was a crucial step to take because white-owned banks refused to loan funds to Black entrepreneurs. Eventually, Tulsa’s Greenwood District grew into a flourishing, self-sufficient community with stores, shops, hotels, banks, newspapers, schools, theaters, restaurants, grocers, and nightclubs.
By 1921, the region was one of the wealthiest Black communities and a center of Black commerce in the United States, leading Booker T. Washington, one of the most prominent Black intellectuals of the time, to dub it “the Negro Wall Street of America.” From there, its name morphed into “Black Wall Street.” Because of Jim Crow segregation laws that restricted social, business, educational, and residential interaction, the insular community’s businesses thrived due to exclusive Black patronage, and residents enjoyed amenities and luxuries afforded by economic mobility such as indoor plumbing and high-quality education. However, upward social mobility outside the community was limited due to the same segregation. Unfortunately, and importantly, the mass migration of Black people to Tulsa for job opportunities and the Black economic progress of the Greenwood District was met not with accolades, but by jealousy and resentment of neighboring poorer white communities.
All of this changed on May 30, 1921, when a Black man named Dick Rowland and a white woman named Sarah Page rode an elevator together. What happened on that elevator quickly became the focus of intense attention with the most widely-accepted account today being that the elevator lurched, causing Rowland to accidentally grab onto Page’s arm and Page screaming from surprise. At the time, however, the Tulsa Tribune published a disparaging report about an alleged sexual assault, leading to an angry white mob gathering at the courthouse where Rowland was held. In response, concerned Black Tulsans also came to the courthouse to protect Rowland from being kidnapped and lynched. Unsurprisingly, the police favored the white mob, arming them with guns and deputizing ordinary citizens. Shots were fired, and the Black community, outnumbered, withdrew to the Greenwood District. The next morning, June 1, a mob of over a thousand white vigilantes descended on the district to loot, attack, and set the entire community on fire – some even attacked with private planes, dropping firebombs onto buildings. The result was at least 300 people dead, 800 people injured, the Greenwood District completely destroyed, 6,000 Black people arrested and placed into internment camps, and almost all of the 10,000 Black residents left homeless. Zero white Tulsans were arrested, punished, or held accountable. It completely decimated the Greenwood District and forced dispossession and dispersion of the Black community.
The Tulsa Race Massacre remains significant today, especially for the investment community, as it considers how capitalism, with a history rooted in slavery and systemic racism, has formed the United States and continues to work for the privileged, often white, and wealthy. If Black Wall Street had not been looted and burned to the ground, where could those families have been today, and how would today’s racial and economic landscape look different? This anniversary challenges us to learn the full impact of this terrible history and to question our role as investors today in redressing some of the harm caused. Too often the financial system has erased and forgotten the racist history behind existing systems today. Lastly, it calls on us to support public policy such as the HR 40 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, which will help address the long economic suffering and wealth disparities of Black Americans today, some of whom are descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre victims.
Trillium Asset Management is committed to addressing racial injustice through our investments and our shareholder advocacy. Whether it is announcing our support for HR 40, strengthening the analysis of racial and ethnic factors within our investment process, directing capital to BIPOC entrepreneurs and communities, applying racial justice within our own organization, and amplifying Black voices, we are taking this anniversary as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the work ahead. We recognize we are not perfect and welcome community feedback and suggestions on furthering racial equity and justice as we continue to strive for change.
More educational & activism resources by Black historians, authors, and survivors:
Preserving Black Wall Street History – The Greenwood Cultural Center
Reparations for survivors & descendants – Justice for Greenwood
Newsletter on Black Wall Street – Run It Back by Victor Luckerson
For children – A Promise Deferred: The Massacre of Black Wall Street by Dr. Tamecca S. Rogers and Keith Ross
1 https://www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/h-r-40-is-not-a-symbolic-act-its-a-path-to-restorative-justice/and https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/40?s=4&r=28