The Reconstruction Origins of "Black Wall Street"Roundup
tags: Reconstruction, African American history, Native American history, Tulsa race massacre
Alexandra E. Stern is a political historian of nineteenth-century America and Native America and a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. She is currently an ACLS Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter @weSTERNhistoria.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre targeted and destroyed the city’s prosperous Greenwood District, home to a vibrant economy of Black-owned businesses that was known nationally as Black Wall Street. The Greenwood District’s origins are usually placed around the turn of the century with the development of the area’s oil resources. However, its emergence was also critically founded in the wealth of African Americans and Black freedpeople made possible by the region’s unique political and economic history of Reconstruction.
Before the area we know as Oklahoma received statehood in 1907, the region was known as Indian Territory. This unorganized territory served as home to the Five Civilized Tribes—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations—after their forced exodus from the southeast in the 1830s and reservation tribes originally from the far West. Members of all Five Tribes were chattel slaveholders and brought enslaved people with them during removal. Torn between the United States and the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Five Tribes experienced their own internal civil wars as their members fought for both sides. In the wake of the United States’ total victory in 1865, the federal government required the Five Tribes to sign new treaties in 1866, known as the Reconstruction Treaties. These treaties required significant land cessions in punishment for the Tribes’ support of the Confederacy, despite the fact that thousands of members of the tribes had fought in the Union army, as well as the abolition of slavery and, most importantly, the inclusion of their new freedpeople as tribal citizens.
These demands put Indian Territory into the vanguard of Reconstruction policy. Giving former slaves full and equal citizenship rights was not at the time a Reconstruction requirement for former Confederate states in the South. In receiving citizenship rights in their respective tribes through the Reconstruction treaties, hundreds of freedpeople gained access to tribal lands held in common. Land policy in the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations allowed citizens—Native and Black—to create their own property by improving land communally owned held by each Nation.
Most commonly in the Creek and Seminole nations, newly freed people built all-Black towns for their mutual physical and economic security and gained some representation in Creek and Seminole tribal governments. This was the beginning of African American communities, like Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, that would remain prosperous into the early twentieth century. Access to land in the public domain gave freedpeople the economic boost they needed. As historian Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. explains, “in the succeeding thirty years, they developed a lifestyle that most blacks in the South would have envied.”
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