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‘We lived like we were Wall Street’

Before the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood was one of the wealthiest black communities in the country

Survivors search through rubble of lost homes after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

Before it was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood was one of the most affluent black communities in the country. It was known as “Black Wall Street” because of its concentrated wealth.

“We lived like we were Wall Street,” remembered Otis Granville Clark, then a 105-year-old survivor of the massacre, in “Before They Die!,” a 2008 documentary. “A lot of folks would come in from New York and Chicago. We had a big time here on Greenwood. This was oil country.”

Greenwood’s past is back in the news after Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) announced last week that the city would reopen its investigation into whether victims of the century-old race massacre were buried in mass graves.

‘They was killing black people’ In Tulsa, a century-old race massacre still haunts Black Wall Street

Before the massacre, Greenwood had a population of more than 100,000 black people, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center’s history of the community. It was home to luxury shops, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, a hospital, a savings and loan, a post office, three hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, two movie theaters, a library, pool halls, a bus and cab service, a nationally recognized school system, six private airplanes and two black newspapers.

Jim Crow kept that wealth in the community. “Not only did black Americans want to contribute to the success of their own shops,” the cultural center explains, “but there were also racial segregation laws that prevented them from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood.”

Elegant homes where doctors, lawyers and business owners lived lined Detroit Avenue.

Olivia Hooker, who was 6 at the time of the massacre, recalled that her father, Samuel D. Hooker, owned a department store, selling clothing and other goods.

“I was a child who didn’t know about bias and prejudice because the only white people we saw came to sell things to my father,” Hooker, now 103, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They were very nice. It was quite a trauma to find out people hated you for your color.”

Her mother hid her and her siblings under a dining room table as their home was being ransacked.

“They took everything they thought was valuable. They smashed everything they couldn’t take. My mother had [opera singer Enrico] Caruso records she loved. They smashed the Caruso records.”

“At the time of the riot, there were fifteen well-known black American physicians, one of whom, Dr. A.C. Jackson, was considered the ‘most able Negro surgeon in America’ by the Mayo brothers,” founders of the Mayo Clinic, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center. Jackson was fatally shot during the massacre when he emerged from his house with his hands raised in surrender to the mob.

Walter F. White, then assistant secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in an interview that appeared in a June 18, 1921, Salt Lake City newspaper: “Having been sworn in as a deputy sheriff and having been on patrol as such during the Tulsa riot, I am able to state that the Tulsa riot in sheer brutality and wilful [sic] destruction of life and property stands without a parallel in America.”

White, a black man whose skin color was such that he was able to slip into white communities to gather information, traveled the country in the early part of the century investigating lynchings and mass murders of black people.

The massacre began on May 31, 1921, when white mobs descended on Greenwood, burning houses and shooting black people. Some people were burned alive, and 40 square blocks of business and residential property — valued then at more than $1 million — were destroyed.

The rampage, which lasted 48 hours, left more than 10,000 black residents of Greenwood homeless and as many as 300 black people dead.

Witnesses to the massacre recalled seeing white mobs looting homes of black people, pulling out finely carved furniture, pianos, mink and leopard coats, before setting the houses on fire. There were reports that hundreds of bodies were thrown into the Arkansas River or buried in mass graves.

As Tulsa prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the rampage, the mayor promised the city would reinvestigate the possibility of mass graves. “We owe it to the community to know if there are mass graves in our city,” Bynum said. “We owe it to the victims and their family members. We will do everything we can to find out what happened in 1921.”

Tulsa mayor reopens investigation into possible mass graves from 1921 race massacre

City officials, working with a retired state archaeologist, plan to reexamine two Tulsa cemeteries and a former dump, which were identified in 1998 by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission as possible mass gravesites.

Bynum said the new investigation would begin at Oaklawn Cemetery, where the city would use updated technology to see whether there is evidence that bodies were dumped there. The new investigation could begin within the next few months.

“We want to do minimally invasive work. If bodies are there, we want to be respectful,” he said.

According to an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the affluence of black people in Greenwood created envy.

“Historians identify white animosity toward Greenwood’s economic independence as one of the leading causes” of the riot, the Smithsonian exhibit said. “In fact, before white mobs razed the town, they looted homes and local businesses.”

Within a few years, residents had rebuilt Greenwood.

Chief Egunwale Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society, a nonprofit based in Tulsa, said archival photos capturing the aftermath of the massacre show some residents returning to smoldering houses, walking through the rubble.

“Black people had a habit of hiding money inside chimney stacks,” Amusan said. “They hid money in the bricks in the chimney.”

He believes this is why some residents were able to rebuild even as insurance companies denied their claims because the violence had been labeled by city officials as a riot.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed without comment a lawsuit against the City of Tulsa, its police department and the state of Oklahoma, demanding reparations for survivors of the 1921 massacre.

“The rejection left in place a lower court's ruling that a two-year statute of limitations on claims had expired in 1923,” according to a 2005 Washington Post report. “According to law, the judges ruled, it mattered little that segregated courts in which Ku Klux Klan members held judgeships refused to hear claims of black victims immediately after the riot, or that evidence of its devastation was erased or hidden until the 2001 report.”

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, survivors of the massacre were crestfallen, recalled Steven Toll, whose law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll represented the survivors, along with Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, in bringing a lawsuit against Tulsa and the state.

“It was a moving day,” said Toll, who is co-producer, along with Reggie Turner, of the documentary “Before They Die!”

“This was a flourishing community,” he said. “Our goal for all the survivors, who were children at the time, was to try to use the lawsuit to get back something. . . . Our goal was to get people who lost their homes and entire wealth, to get them a certain amount of value back — for what their parents lost and ultimately, they lost.”

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