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* Black History Special
By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
It was a land flowing with milk and honey - a place where the American dream really did come true.
Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was made up of 36 blocks within a one mile radius and was home to 600 black-owned businesses that included 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, 2 movie theatres, a bank, a hospital, a school, a printing plant and 6 private planes. Prosperity was in abundance. There were at least three millionaires. Another person was worth $500,000 and several men and women were worth over $100,000. African Americans escaped economic hardships and lived the American dream of homeownership and entrepreneurship in 1921. And, it came to be known as “Black Wall Street”.
Purchasing land from money made in the oil fields, O.W. Gurley established the neighborhood in 1906. Its population quickly grew to about 11,000. Segregation attributed to the community’s wealth. A dollar would circulate 19 times, before leaving Greenwood. According to statistics cited by the NAACP, a dollar currently stays in the black community for only 6 hours.
African Americans came to Black Wall Street from across the country hoping to grab hold and partake of the dream. But, on May 31, 1921 those dreams shattered and for some were permanently destroyed.
Screams ranged out from an elevator in a public office building. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, screamed and Dick Rowland, a black 19-year-old shoe shiner, ran out.
Whites who heard the screams assumed that Dick had assaulted Sarah or attempted to rape her.
But others say that he accidentally stepped on her foot or tripped and grabbed hold of her arm to keep from falling. Nevertheless, Sarah did not file charges but the police arrested Dick anyway.
Fearing the teen would be lynched, black men quickly came to his aide. Armed blacks and whites gathered outside of the jail house, both seeking to capture the teen. Envious of the wealth accumulated in the black community added to the hostility. When a white man was shot during the ruckus, it would ignite one of the greatest terrorists acts committed in the United States.
Outnumbered and outgunned blacks were brutally attacked and killed. Planes flew over the community dropping firebombs on homes and buildings.
By the next day, rubble and smothering smoke was all that was left of Black Wall Street. About 300 blacks were killed and 10,000 were left homeless.
“I was 6 years and 3 months old, when it occurred. The reason it was so devastating to me was that I had never been made aware of discrimination and hatred. The only people that I saw who were not of my hue were people who were trying to sell something to my father for his department store. So, they behaved as salesmen do. They brought things. They listened to my sister play (a song). And, they tried to engage the children, so my father would buy their product,” recalled Olivia Hooker, in an interview 2 years ago at age 99. “That was my image of people of another hue, so when this terrible thing happened, it really destroyed my faith in humanity. It took a good long while for me to get over it.”
And, others sought to get over it by hiding its ugly truth, which has been omitted from many history books. Some were ashamed to talk about it.
“But blacks, we asked years ago, ‘Why did you not talk about it?’ And they said that after the race riot, when they came back here and there was absolutely nothing to come home to, that they felt those same feelings of anger and resentment and bitterness and fear,” explained Mechelle Brown, program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center. “But they had to think about the next day, and the day after. It robbed us of something. It robbed us of our history. It robbed us of where we come from.”
Although nearly 100 years have passed since the massacre, there are lessons to be learned today.
“We should get all of the facts, before jumping to conclusions,” said 12-year-old Ashante Turner. “We should also support black businesses and buy in our community. If they can do it back then, we can do it today. We can all be wealthy, if we support one another. Just like Black Wall Street started with one man, we can build another in Detroit. And, it’s going to start with me. I’m going to start spending my allowances at black businesses at home. Will you join me?”