Many Americans are familiar with the story of Rosewood, the black Florida town which was destroyed by whites enraged by reports that a black man had assaulted a white woman. Less known is the story of Greenwood, a Tulsa, Okla., community of African Americans that was so successful and prosperous that it was named the “Black Wall Street.”
Greenwood was burned to the ground in a riot by whites on May 31-June 1, 1921, again after allegations that a black man had attacked a white woman.
Although some residents and others describe the atrocity as the darkest days in American history, more than nine decades after Greenwood happened, this tragic episode in our nation’s history is still not well known to most Americans.
Greenwood symbolizes the worst of America, another example of white supremacy asserting itself in the most ugly ways, premised on the false assumption of racial superiority. The community was attacked ostensibly because of the trumped-up incident but there is little doubt that a deeper current of hatred existed against blacks who had become successful in a major way. After all, this was in the days of segregation and blacks, who not long before were slaves, could not really be successful at anything. Or so it was thought.
Not only were they successful. They were also willing to defend themselves in the face of attack and they did so, even though they were outnumbered. They were not about to lie down and let the racists roll over them.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of Greenwood is that within five years after being burnt out, many black residents were rebuilding, in the face of strong opposition, determined to reclaim the glory days. The city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma have not been as helpful as they can, seeking refuge in the statute of limitations when pressed to compensate the victims of this atrocity. There are some hesitant steps towards reconciliation but that will be impossible until officials acknowledge the wrong done to this community and do their best to make them whole.
Michigan Congressman John Conyers has been a lone advocate for reparations but other initiatives are beginning to take shape, including documentaries that spread the story of Greenwood. Those steps must be given the widest possible support. Officials in Oklahoma should follow the lead of Florida which has paid reparation to the survivors of Rosewood, becoming the first state to provide compensation to victims of racial violence. It is the right thing to do.
We must also take an example from the resilience of the people of Greenwood in building a prosperous community in the midst of great hardships and, while still bitter about the attack, set themselves to rebuilding what was destroyed.
We owe it to ourselves to become familiar with the story of Greenwood and the “Black Wall Street” that was. We owe it to those whose lives were lost through racial hatred to replicate the “Black Wall Street” in major cities in America. That will be the ultimate elevation of Greenwood.