The massacre of 'Black Wall Street' still resonates today

The massacre of 'Black Wall Street' still resonates today
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Many people have not heard of “Black Wall Street,” the community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., that held so much promise until a tragedy that wiped it from existence 100 years ago Monday. On May 31, 1921, an armed mob organized and mobilized by white supremacists killed an estimated 300 Black men, women and children, and left thousands destitute and homeless, snuffing the light of progress.

Many people don’t know this history. That’s why I’m going to relate it.

Imagine a city that so embodied the wholesome and idealized promise of the American Dream that Frank Capra and Norman Rockwell would have hated not to have created it themselves. Imagine a post-Reconstruction city that not only weathered the upheaval and violence that marked so much of America leading into and immediately following World War I, but one that thrived. Now imagine that community was Black. 

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This was the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, an oasis of Black entrepreneurship and opportunity founded by O.W. Gurley, the son of slaves who bought 40 acres of Tulsa land to create a safe and self-sustaining haven for African Americans in 1906 — and his idea worked.

Directly and indirectly, Gurley funded Black-owned businesses throughout the community, from newspapers to movie theaters to churches to grocery stores, attracting investors such as J.B. Stradford, a former slave who built a 55-room luxury hotel — the largest Black-owned hotel in the country — in the heart of Greenwood.

Though strictly segregated, Greenwood continued to thrive with new storefronts and services opening on nearly every street. It had doctor and lawyer offices, jewelry stores, retail shops, its own post office, banks and school system. In fact, less than 15 years after that first 40-acre purchase, Gurley would become one of the wealthiest Black men in America and Greenwood would become known as Black Wall Street.

Keep in mind that Greenwood’s success was not the norm in America at the time. The Ku Klux Klan was resurgent, inspiring a new generation to racial terrorism. Lynchings were on the rise, both North and South, and 1919’s Red Summer, when race riots pitted Blacks against whites across the nation from Chicago to Washington.

Then, on May 31, 1921, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland walked into a  Drexel Building elevator where a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page was on duty … and everything changed.

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The elevator doors closed. There was a scream. The police were called; assumptions were made. Rowland was arrested.

To be clear, Page never said that Rowland assaulted her, much less raped her. She refused to press charges and even the investigating officers concluded that no assault had taken place. But that didn’t stop the white-owned newspapers in Tulsa from painting Rowland as a violent predator who attacked Page. They ran headlines suggesting “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

It didn’t take long for an armed lynch mob of roughly 2,000 white men to gather outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held. When a much smaller group of around 75 Black men went to the courthouse to do what they could to protect Rowland from the mob, the spark became a fire.

When it was all done, as many as 300 Black residents had been murdered, their bodies dumped into mass graves or the river, and Greenwood had been largely burned to the ground. Some 10,000 Black men, women and children were homeless. 

But the newspaper headlines ignored all of this. They called the massacre “a riot.” They said only 30 residents had died, nine white and 21 Black. They circulated postcards of the devastation as a warning to Black residents and covered up the reality of what happened for generations.

Now, I say all that to ask this: Could something similar happen today? 

Yes, we don’t live in the same world they did 100 years ago. Brutality and violence is exposed every day. News moves by satellite and fiber optics, and the eyes of the world can be turned on any incident no matter how small. But the similarities between that world and ours are striking — and a little terrifying.

It was less than six months ago that a violent and armed mob, mobilized by white supremacists, invaded the U.S. Capitol and tried to take over our government. Mass shootings pepper our headlines all the time. Barely a week goes by that we don’t hear about another Black man or woman brutalized or killed by white authorities. 

Would former police officer Derek Chauvin have faced any consequences if 17-year-old Darnella Frazier had been too scared to pull out her smartphone and record the death of George Floyd? Would Ahmaud Arbery’s death have gone unsolved if there’d been no outrage? And consider the conspiracy theories about antifa’s supposed involvement and those of QAnon’s supporters in the Jan. 6 uprising. What would happen in instances like these if we didn’t demand the truth?

To this day, in some quarters the Greenwood massacre is known as the “Tulsa race riot,” even though it wasn’t a riot. Now, 100 years later, too many of us — white and Black — don’t know about this bloody and hateful chapter of our nation’s history, but its scars define us still.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.