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100 Years Since the Tulsa Race Massacre, A Moral and Economic Imperative Remains

Gregory Johnson — Managing Director, Economic Equity Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

I was in eighth grade when I first learned about the terror inflicted on the lively and prosperous community of Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921.

I held back tears then, but I couldn’t earlier this month as I listened to Viola Ford Fletcher, now 107, testifying before Congress about that night. Her quiet dignity made me think of my own Mississippi grandmother.

 “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street,” said Mother Fletcher, as she is known. “I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day…I’m here seeking justice, and I’m asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”

Greenwood was founded in 1906. A mere 15 years later, due to the economic brilliance of Black entrepreneurs working against all odds, the district had nightclubs, hotels, poolhalls, cafes, banks, newspapers, clothing shops, movie theaters, doctors’ and lawyers’ office and more. It was dubbed the Black Wall Street.

But beginning on the night of May 31 and stretching into the following day, a White mob attacked Black residents indiscriminately from both ground and air, killing up to 300 people, tossing bodies in mass graves and the Arkansas River, looting and then burning more than 1,000 homes, and destroying hundreds of businesses, including more than a dozen churches, two dozen grocery stores, 31 restaurants, a public library and schools.

“It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community and we couldn’t understand why,” said Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, another survivor who also testified. “I was so scared. I didn’t think we could make it out alive.”

Sixteen hours after the violent rampage began, the 35-square-block district lay smoldering and in ruins.

“They had made up their minds to clear the entire area of Black people,” Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, a survivor who died in 2018 at age 103, once told an interviewer.

Most of the district’s 10,000 Black residents were left homeless. Some had run businesses from their homes—barbershops or laundry services—and so their incomes were gone. Property damage was estimated at about $25 million to $100 million in today’s dollars. It is the deadliest outbreak of White terrorist violence against a Black community in American history.

“Because of the massacre, my family was driven from our home; we were left with nothing. We were made refugees in our own country,” testified survivor Hughes van Ellis, 100. “We aren’t just black-and-white pictures on a screen. We are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I’m still here.”

Survivors never received compensation for what they lost. Local insurance companies denied every claim submitted by Black businessowners. No one was arrested for the murders and destruction. In fact, a coverup began almost immediately.

From Riot to Renaissance

Residents moved into tents and started rebuilding. They shifted from loss and pain to renaissance: by 1942, the district again boasted 242 Black-owned businesses.

Yes, we are resilient. We’ve had to be, not only in Tulsa, but in scores of other places—the Russell neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, and on Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, and through the Red Summer of 1919 when white supremist mobs murdered Black people in dozens of incidents across the U.S.

But I begin to resent that word resilience. Enough. We shouldn’t have to keep digging within for more sturdiness and determination in the face of violence, brutality and injustice.

And even with the superhuman efforts of Greenwood’s citizens, racist policies continued to cripple the community. The wealth that the mob destroyed was never fully recovered. Citywide, the Black poverty rate is 34 percent while the White poverty rate is 13 percent. The unemployment rate for Black Tulsans is over twice the rate for White residents.

Young Black and Brown people do not trust our country’s institutions, because every time their communities build something, it gets wiped away, either by the state, or without intervention from the state.

“Present-day racial and economic disparities in Tulsa can be traced back to the massacre,” noted Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that heard the survivors’ testimony. “In America, Tulsa is a microcosm of what has happened to the African-American community in this country.”

The Need for Truth and Reform

“He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. So how do we protest what happened in Tulsa a hundred years ago?

We start by insisting on the truth of what Mother Fletcher and others witnessed. We need to broadcast that truth when we can.

But that’s only Step One. It is crucial that we also support our country’s Black-owned businesses. Entrepreneurship plays a vital role in building wealth in families, communities and economies, but the opportunity to start and grow a business remains unequal for White and Black Americans.

We must reform the way we lend in this country. Lending decisions should be based on business potential above all else. Black entrepreneurs are nearly three times more likely than White entrepreneurs to have business growth and profitability negatively impacted by a lack of financial capital, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Because of the barriers they face to getting a business loan, 70.6 percent of Black entrepreneurs rely on personal and family savings for financing, and with lower family wealth for Black families overall, this creates a wider opportunity gap, particularly for small businesses that gross $250,000 or less.

We also must promote coalition building. People are their own best advocates, but we can help them create organizations that represent their interests, and lift their networks so they can more loudly advocate for their needs.

We want to help scale not only the businesses that communities require, like convenience stores and pharmacies, but the businesses that purely bring joy, like ice cream parlors and shops selling sneakers.

It is too rarely acknowledged that closing entrepreneurship’s racial divides is good for everyone. A recent study found that if the number of Black- and Brown-owned firms was proportional to their labor force participation, the U.S. would add more than 1.1 million businesses, supporting an estimated nine million additional jobs and adding nearly $300 billion in workers’ income. A separate study estimated that more equitable access for the Black entrepreneurs would generate an additional $8 trillion in U.S. GDP growth.

When she went to bed the night in her home before the massacre began, Miss Fletcher recalled, “I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future ahead of me. Greenwood had given me the chance to truly make it in this country. Within a few hours, all of that was gone.” After the Tulsa race massacre, her education was interrupted. She completed only fourth grade and spent most of her life as a poorly paid domestic worker for White families.

So our efforts are not about dollars and cents alone. Miss Fletcher and the other victims of Tulsa’s terror 100 years ago have presented us with an undeniable moral and economic imperative. We must make sure Black children believe the American dream is possible for them, Black businesses receive equitable rules and tools to grow, and throughout America, Black Wall Streets can prosper.