The Tulsa Race Massacre was an Attack on Black People; Rebuilding Policies were an Attack on Black WealthHistorians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, Oklahoma, Tulsa race massacre, Greenwood
There are numerous dissections of what happened to the historic Black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, aka “Black Wall Street,” during the tragic race massacre of 1921, when more than 1,000 Black-owned homes and businesses were burned down by a white mob. There have been fewer accounts about what happened after the destruction of Greenwood, once home to some of the wealthiest African Americans in the US.
That void has been filled with the release of Victor Luckerson’s new book Built From the Fire, a nearly 500-page tome that comprehensively details the makings of Greenwood, the myth; Greenwood, the actual place; the massacre that reduced it to ashes; and the waves of re-destruction that occurred after it was rebuilt.
Some of those waves came in the form of urban renewal schemes, which pushed many businesses and homes built by massacre survivors out of Greenwood. A highway constructed right through the neighborhood emptied it out even more. Government policies have not been named as major culprits of the neighborhood’s demise in mainstream retellings of the Black Wall Street narrative. But for Luckerson, such policies did as much damage if not more to Greenwood’s heritage than the initial conflagration.
Originally from Montgomery, Alabama, Luckerson moved to Tulsa in 2019, embedding himself in the Greenwood community, Tulsa’s historical archives, and any other institution or resource he could find to gather information for writing Built From the Fire.
Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Luckerson about the themes covered in his book, what the public often gets wrong about Black Wall Street, and the role of local and federal policies in devastating this once illustrious Black community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Which disaster would you say did the most harm to Greenwood: the massacre, urban renewal, or the highway?
After the race massacre, we have this really powerful story about resiliency and Black people rebuilding, which is true. This community was devastated with more than 1,200 homes and businesses destroyed, but they were able to rebuild incredibly quickly. By that Christmas there were hundreds of structures back up in the neighborhood. But because they had to rebuild so fast, a lot of the structures were poorly made, so they became dilapidated pretty fast. I looked up Census tract records in the 1940s and saw how the vast majority of Greenwood properties had been built right after 1921, many of them not having indoor plumbing or basic amenities. You get to the ‘60s and ‘70s and urban renewal comes through. Now we have this community where lots of structures are still around, but in really bad need of repair. They are designated as blighted by the urban renewal authority, and so there's really a direct connection between those two events. I would say the massacre was more devastating in the short term, and urban renewal more devastating in the long term.
Did Greenwood survivors have to rebuild from scratch, or was there some level of government assistance?
I don't know if shocking is the right word, but it was telling to discover how little the city wanted to help. The city had this perspective that they were too proud to ask for help. You have a huge disaster like that, one of the first thoughts is: Can we get outside aid from other parts of the country? But I'm told [Tulsa officials] actually turned it down — literally sent checks back to Chicago and other places that were offering aid to Greenwood, with this sort of mentality that, ‘We're a proud city, we can fix our own mess.’
After that, another group of city leaders who were more craven actually tried to first buy out the property, which Greenwood folk didn't want to sell. They even passed city ordinances that were going to make it harder to rebuild. The state government denied a direct request for aid to Greenwood. You need loans to rebuild your properties, but some white business owners wouldn’t issue loans, or if they did they were at really exorbitant rates. All those mechanical things really undermined the ability for Greenwood to rebuild with the same kind of sturdiness that it had before the race massacre.
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