I am the author of the phenomenal novel “Just a Season”. The title is derived from the religious knowledge referring to a period of time characterized by a particular circumstance, suitable to an indefinite period of time associated with a divine phenomenon called life. During this passage through time, I have come to realize that there are milestones, mountains, and valleys that all of us must encounter. This speaks loudly to the challenges of black people.
There are so many acts terror inflicted upon black people that honestly are too numerous to count. White folks, however, erase those horrible crimes and murder from the pages of history and never talk about the sins of the fathers. This heartbreaking story is one that is never mentioned or talked about but it happened and to this day no redress has been afforded to the victims.
The story of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma was where America bombed a proud and thriving community during a time called segregation. It was during a time when Jim Crow ruled and separate but equal was the law of the land. It was because of this de facto Apartheid-like system black people, were forced to live in communities dependent upon each other in order to survive – and survive they did. At the time, this was the law of the land, and every town had such a place; be it Upton in Baltimore, the Black Bottom in Detroit, or the most famous of them all Harlem USA.
The name “Black Wall Street” was fittingly given; it was the most affluent all-black community in America at the time. This community was the epitome of success proving that black people had a successful infrastructure known as the golden door of the Black community during the early 1900’s. Although, it was in an unusual location Black Wall Street was a prime example of the typical Black community in America that did business far beyond expectations.
Let me explain, the state of Oklahoma was set aside to be a Black and Indian state that included over 28 Black townships. Another point worth noting, nearly a third of the people who traveled on the terrifying “Trail of Tears” alongside the Indians from 1830 to 1842 were Black people. The citizens of Oklahoma chose a Black governor; there were Ph.D.’s, Black attorneys, doctors and professionals from all walks of life contributing to the successful development of this community. One such luminous figure was Dr. Berry, who also owned the bus system generating an average income of $500 a day in 1910. During this time, physicians owned medical schools to empower and develop African Americans.
The area known as Black Wall Street encompassed 36 square blocks, over 600 businesses with a population of 15,000 black people. There were pawn shops everywhere, brothels, jewelry stores, churches, restaurants and movie theaters. Their success was monumentally evident in that the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, yet six Blacks owned their own planes. Just to show how wealthy many Black people were, there was a banker in a neighboring town who had a wife named California Taylor. Her father owned the largest cotton gin west of the Mississippi. When California shopped, she would take a cruise to Paris every three months to have her clothes made.
There was also a man named Mason in nearby Wagner County, who had the largest potato farm in the west. When he harvested, he would fill 100 boxcars a day. Another Black man not far away was doing the same thing with a spinach farm. The typical family averaged five children or more, although the typical farm family would have ten kids or more that made up the nucleus of the labor.
What was significant about Black Wall Street was that the black citizens understood an important principle – they kept the money in the community. The dollars circulated 36 to 1000 times within the community, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. Something the black community of today does not fully appreciate or practice because a dollar will leave the black community today in 15 minutes. This community was so tight and wealthy because they traded dollars hand-to-hand because they were dependent upon one another, as a result, of Jim Crow laws.
Another powerful image that was extremely significant was education. The foundation of the community was to educate every child because they understood that education is the single most important ingredient necessary to neutralize those forces that breed poverty and despair. When students went to school, they wore a suit and ties because of the morals and respect they were taught at a young age. In addition, nepotism contributed greatly to the success of this community as a way to help one another – a tactic that needs to be instilled in our culture today.
A postscript to Tulsa’s legacy is the world renowned R&B music group the GAP Band. The group of brothers Charlie, Ronnie & Robert Wilson, chose the group’s name taken from the first letters of the main thoroughfare Greenwood Avenue that intersects with Archer and Pine Streets; from those letters you get G.A.P. Another legendary figure from Tulsa is their favorite son, basketball great and jazz musician the late Wayman Tisdale. These are just a few luminaries that Tulsa has produced; surely the most recognized today.
An unprecedented amount of global business was conducted from within the Black Wall Street community, which flourished from early 1900 until 1921. Then the unthinkable happened, and the community faced a valley or more accurately stated fell off a cliff. The Black Wall Street community suffered the largest massacre of nonmilitary Americans in the history of this country.
As you might well imagine, the lower economic whites looked over and saw how prosperous the black community had become, and they destroyed it. I don’t know the true reason; jealousy was mentioned, but racism was certainly at its core. Lead by the infamous Ku Klux Klan, working in concert with ranking city officials, and many other sympathizers.
The terror and destruction began Tuesday evening, June 1, 1921, when “Black Wall Street,” was bombed from the air and burned to the ground by mobs of resentful whites. In a period spanning fewer than 12 hours, a once thriving Black business district in northern Tulsa lay smoldering. A model community was destroyed, and a major African-American economic movement resoundingly defused. The night’s carnage left some 3,000 African Americans dead and over 600 successful businesses lost. Among them were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, bank, post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half-dozen private airplanes and even the bus system.
You would think this historic event would be common knowledge, but not so. One would be hard-pressed to find any documentation concerning the incident, let alone an accurate accounting of it. Not in any reference or any American history books documenting the worst incidents of violence ever visited upon people of African descent. This night of horror was unimaginable. Try if you can – imagine seeing 1,500 homes burned and looted while white families with their children standing around the borders of the community watching the massacre much in the same manner they would watch a lynching. It must have been beyond belief for the victims.
I wonder if you are aware of this little-known history fact; where the word “picnic” came from. It was typical to have a picnic on a Friday evening in Oklahoma as it was in many American towns. The word was short for “pick a nigger” to lynch. They would lynch a Black male and cut off body parts as souvenirs. This went on every weekend in many parts of the country with thousands lynched in the first part of the last century. Unfortunately, that is where the word came from.
The riots weren’t caused by anything Black or white. It was caused, as a result, of Black prosperity. A lot of white folks had come back from World War I, and they were poor. When they looked over into the Black Wall Street community and saw that Black men who fought in the war came home as heroes also contributed to the destruction. It cost the Black community everything – justice and reconciliation are often incompatible goals because not a single dime of restitution was ever provided, to include no insurance claims have been awarded to a single victim.
As I began, there are milestones, mountains, and valleys that surely encompassed this community and its people. This is why it is so important to teach these lessons because those who neglect the lessons of the past are doomed to see it repeated. Life is not a race you run; it is a relay, and it is your responsibility to pass the baton. Our youth, the next generation, must be prepared and know when they look at our communities today that they know they came from a people who built kingdoms. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…
THE STORY OF BLACK PEOPLE – they don’t know about us!!!