Black Wall Street, also known as Little Africa, was an excellent example of the Black Community in America that did business and was the wealthiest Black Community in the United States. This model district had its own churches, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, one hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, private airplanes, and even a bus system. Some people compare Black Wall Street to a mini Beverly Hills. The community was so tight and wealthy because they traded dollars hand-to-hand, and because they were dependent upon one another. It was not unusual that if a resident’s home accidentally burned down, it could be rebuilt within a few weeks by neighbors, it was a day-to-day scenario in that particular community. On Black Wall Street, a lot of global business was conducted, the community flourished from the early 1900’s until June 1, 1921, when everything changed for the black citizens of Tulsa.
On the night of May 31, 1921, mobs called for the lynching of Dick Rowland, a black man who shined shoes, after hearing reports that on the previous day he had assaulted Sarah Page, a white woman, in the elevator she operated in a downtown building. A local newspaper had printed their own story, stating that Rowland tried to rape Page, and that a hanging was planned for that night. As groups of both Blacks and Whites converged on the Tulsa Courthouse, a White man confronted an armed Black Man (a war veteran), who had joined with other Blacks to protect Rowland. After fighting over the gun, the gun went off, the white man was dead, and the riot was on.
The gunshots triggered an almost immediate response by the white men, many of whom fired on the blacks, who continued firing back at the whites. The first “battle” was said to last a few seconds or so, but took a toll, as several white and black lay dead or dying in the street. The black contingent retreated toward Greenwood.
The armed white mob pursued the black group toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores for additional weapons and ammunition. Along the way innocent bystanders, many of whom were leaving a movie theater after a show, were caught off guard by the mob and began fleeing. Panic set in as the white mob began firing on any blacks in the crowd.
At around 1 a.m., the white mob began setting fires, mainly to businesses on commercial Archer Street at the southern edge of the Greenwood District. As crews from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived to put out fires, the white mob turned them away at gunpoint. As news traveled among Greenwood residents in the early morning hours, many began to take up arms in defense of their community, while others began a mass exodus from the city.
Numerous witness accounts described airplanes carrying white assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. White law enforcement officials later claimed the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect whites against what they described as a “Negro uprising.” But, eyewitness accounts and testimony from the survivors confirmed that on the morning of June 1, the planes dropped incendiary bombs and fired rifles at black residents on the ground.
A fabricated newspaper story triggered the violent riots that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead. It was the largest massacre of nonmilitary Americans in the history of the United Stated. When the smoke lifted the next day, more than 1,400 homes and businesses in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, the prosperous area known as the Black Wall Street, lay in ruins.
Approximately 1,500 to 3,000 people were killed, and a lot of them were buried in mass graves all around the city, and some others were thrown into the river. The commercial section of Greenwood was destroyed. This included 191 businesses, a junior high school, several churches and the only hospital in the district.
Today, only a single block of the Original Buildings remains standing in the area.
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