(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series that began in the runup to the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre this year.)
George Floyd’s murder last year resulted in a renewed focus on racial inequality in education, health, criminal justice, employment, and economic opportunity. One response has been a resurgence in the “Buy Black” movement, including corporations that pledged to support Black-owned businesses. The concept of “Buying Black” has been a central principle of the civil rights movement since Reconstruction. As far back as the 19th Century, “buying Black” was central to the success of all-Black towns, such as Greenwood, better known as Black Wall Street. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King incorporated this message into his “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech. “We’ve got to strengthen Black institutions,” he said, as he encouraged African Americans to put their money in black-owned banks.
One of the key underpinnings of the “Buy Black” movement is the recognition that economic development is inextricably linked to political and civic power. This link helps explain why there have been so many efforts since Reconstruction to systematically undermine and destroy the economic successes of African Americans. One of the starkest examples is the Tulsa Race Massacre. It was no accident that the Massacre involved the complete “house by house, block by block” destruction of Black Wall Street. A white mob not only murdered hundreds of African-Americans in Greenwood, it also wiped out hundreds of millions of dollars of Black wealth. The systemic inequalities created by these oppressive economic racial attacks must be addressed with more than corporate pledges to “Buy Black.” As the early economic successes in Oklahoma’s all-Black towns have shown, rebuilding Black wealth requires meaningful access to capital, credit, and other financial resources; land and homeowner assistance; as well as reparations. Such a robust economic approach would not only help reconstruct Black wealth, it would also help build Black political and civic strength.
Reconstruction and the Establishment of all-Black towns
In post-Civil War America, for a brief, yet glorious time—from 1865 to 1877—America’s laws and institutions were rewritten and reshaped to ensure that newly freed slaves could claim their basic rights under the Constitution during Reconstruction. African Americans voted in large numbers and held office at every level of government. Newly refashioned state governments established public schools, reunited families torn apart by slavery, and outlawed discrimination in transportation and education.
In this era, Blacks had new rights, new resources, and new opportunities, and took the chance to establish “all-Black towns” and create alternative institutions. Enterprising Blacks numbered among the homesteaders who participated in the Oklahoma Land Run in the late 1880s, founding more than 50 Black settlements in Oklahoma between 1865 and 1920, more than any other state. These communities boasted thriving farms, businesses, schools, newspapers and colleges. By 1905 African American farmers owned about 1.5 million acres of farmland valued at $11 million.
Boley: Land, Liberty and Rodeos
One of the largest of the all-Black towns in Oklahoma was Boley, which Booker T. Washington called the finest Black town in the world. Established in 1903 on 160 acres of land inherited by Abigail Barnett McCormick, the daughter of Black Creek Freedman James Barnett, Boley became the largest predominantly Black town in the United States, numbering over 7,000 residents. By 1910, Boley boasted a Black-owned bank with a national charter, the first Black-owned telephone and electric companies, and a newspaper “The Boley News.” Even today, Boley hosts one of the oldest, largest, and most popular African American rodeos in the nation. The town’s success was no accident: In the wake of the Civil War, U.S. treaties required slave owning tribes to share tribal land and other resources and rights with freed Black people. This gave Black Freedmen a significant financial boost, allowing them to start businesses, farms and ranches. According to Reverend Travis L. Doolin, pastor of Flipper Chapel in all-Black Taft, Oklahoma, “Key to the success of all-Black towns was ownership of land, a sense of community, and mutual aid.”
Other all-Black towns in Oklahoma had vibrant commercial centers, including Rentiesville, which was established within the borders of the Muscogee Creek Nation in 1903, and Langston, which was founded in 1890. Rentiesville boasted a school, post offices, a cotton gin, and thriving businesses, all of which were Black-operated. In Langston, which was known as the “cotton belt center of Oklahoma,” there were 25 retail businesses by 1892, including a bank. Langston also flourished as a center of education with the establishment of a land-grant college in 1897 that became Langston University – the only historically Black college in the state of Oklahoma.
In a state rich with the soil of numerous Black commercial centers, it’s no wonder that prosperous Greenwood blossomed.
The impressive political, social, educational, and economic gains of Reconstruction, however, would be short-lived. By the 1880s, former Confederate states experienced a wave of racial violence motivated by the intent to reestablish white supremacy, as part of what many White Southerners called Redemption. Jim Crow, lasting roughly from 1877-1964, imposed economic subjugation, designed to move Blacks back to the life of servitude that they had earlier occupied, particularly through the imposition of tenancy or sharecropping arrangements, the denial of access to education, the repeal of the franchise, and the strengthening of a ruthless criminal justice apparatus.
One of the most devastating examples of this backlash was the Tulsa Race Massacre. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, Black residents ran down Greenwood Avenue, the heart of Black Wall Street, in fear for their lives. In addition to the significant loss of human life, the economic losses caused by the Massacre were staggering. In two days, a White mob had razed and burned down thirty city blocks, over 1,000 residences and hundreds of successful businesses. While estimates of the wealth destroyed have varied, according to DeNeen Brown’s article in the June 2021 print edition of National Geographic, the Massacre erased $610,743,750 in accumulated wealth, measured in the ability to build wealth and pass it down to descendants.
The destruction of Greenwood occurred during a national wave of racial violence, which reached a fever pitch between 1918 and 1921. Northern and Southern cities, including Omaha; Longview, Texas; Washington D.C.; Chicago; and St. Louis, exploded in racial violence. In the case of Greenwood, the attack was massive, violent, intensive, and notably, supported by the media, the private sector, as well as local, state, and national government. This national wave of racial violence included economic attacks against African Americans in an effort to eliminate the political and civic gains they had achieved during Reconstruction.
City of Tulsa’s Complicity in the Destruction of Greenwood
While public officials, such as Tulsa’s mayor, have acknowledged, to a certain extent, the government’s role in this racial violence and economic destruction, they have failed to fully recognize the scale and scope of the government’s complicity. On the Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, G.T. Bynum, Tulsa’s mayor apologized for the role of the City of Tulsa in the destruction of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre:
“Tulsa’s city government failed to protect Black Tulsans from murder and arson on the night of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and from discrimination in subsequent decades.”
Bynum’s apology does not go far enough. The City of Tulsa did not just “fail to protect” Black Tulsans during the Massacre, the City actively participated in it. Tulsa Police arrested Dick Rowland. Public officials provided ammunition and arms to mob participants. The City mischaracterized the Massacre as a “race riot,” allowing for the systematic denial of legitimate insurance claims in the wake of the Massacre. City officials tried to prevent relief efforts for the displaced. Disturbingly, days after the Massacre, the Tulsa City Council passed laws to prevent Greenwood from rebuilding. In the 1960s, an interstate highway was routed through the heart of historic Greenwood, destroying much of what had been rebuilt post-Massacre. And under the guise of urban renewal, the City of Tulsa leveled much of rebuilt Greenwood in the 1970s.
Despite the significant role the City of Tulsa has played in destroying Greenwood, it has refused to take responsibility for the harm it has caused. Mayor Bynum has stated that reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre would “divide the city” – ironic words in a town scarred by widespread and lasting residential segregation.
Threats to Black Economic Success
The destruction of Black Wall Street reminds us that early progress in African-American economic success had been a national phenomenon with relatively broad participation before White mobs responded with racial violence. Critical to the rise of these Black commercial districts such as Greenwood and Boley were home ownership, land ownership, and access to capital and credit, as they enhanced and protected Black economic self-sufficiency.
Unsurprisingly, these are the very economic resources that have been repeatedly undermined and attacked during Jim Crow, segregation, the civil rights movement of 1950s to 1970s, and even today. Not only have African Americans had to endure lynchings, race massacres, and police violence, they have also been subjected to subtle and not so subtle attempts to destroy their access to home and land ownership, as well as credit and capital, with actions such as tax sales, predatory land speculation, and political disenfranchisement.
For example, in the run up to the Great Recession, African Americans were targeted for subprime mortgage loans. As a result, Black communities were at a greater risk for foreclosure during the housing collapse. Black entrepreneurs still face significant structural obstacles to their success. They are denied loans nearly twice as often as white business owners. Homeownership in the Black community lags behind that of white homeownership, in part due to the legacy of redlining as well as the legacy of the outright theft of Black land. In addition, Black farmers receive a disproportionately low percentage of loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has historically denied Black farmers access to timely loans and debt restructuring, resulting in the landmark settlement in Pigford v. Glickman.
Rebuilding Black Wealth
Given the sizeable wealth gap between Black and White communities, and the long history of systematic legal and financial discrimination, the “Buy Black” movement, by itself, is not enough to empower Black entrepreneurs. Governments, philanthropists, banks, and citizens must work together to provide access to capital, credit, land, loans, homeowner assistance, and indeed, reparations. In a promising gesture, President Biden has acknowledged the destruction of the Massacre while promising to narrow the racial wealth gap.
Rebuilding Black wealth requires strong support for homeownership and fair mortgage opportunities. Increasing access to Black homeownership requires changes in access to credit and financial resources, including targeted down payment assistance programs, as well as increasing the supply of affordable homes.
In addition, banks, investors and governments should take steps to ensure that Black-owned businesses have access to capital. African Americans have never been able to access the same amount of credit and capital as White entrepreneurs. Nationally, African-American businesses were hit hard during the pandemic, experiencing a 41 percent drop in business activity. According to the Rockefeller Foundation, “minority-owned businesses drive the creation of well-paying jobs, serve as anchors in their communities, and grow faster than non-minority-owned businesses.” William Towns recommends changing how credit worthiness is measured, focusing on payment histories rather than the proportion of credit used. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also urged the use of alternative data to create a more inclusive financial system.
Finally, Black farmers face a bitter legacy of discrimination. In the 1920s, nearly one million Black farmers held 14 percent of American farms, yet farms run by African Americans make up less than 2 percent of farms today. In 2015, Black farmers received only 0.2 percent of the $5.7 billion in loans administered or guaranteed by USDA. The Justice for Black Farmers Act would protect Black farmers from land loss while restoring land and supporting socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
The story of Greenwood is a story of sorrow, yet it is also a story of innovation, determination, and resilience. After vigilantes burned and razed Greenwood to the ground, residents rebuilt. The rise of Black Wall Street and other all-Black towns is not just a story about Tulsa, or even just a story about Oklahoma. Rather, this history serves as a powerful reminder that given resources and support, Black wealth has not only blossomed, but it has strengthened Black political and civic resilience.
The Centennial of the destruction of Black Wall Street represents a national opportunity to reexamine how Black wealth has been destroyed over the past century. It also represents an opportunity to recreate the conditions for Black prosperity in honor the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by tearing down structural barriers to success, and giving Black entrepreneurs access to the resources they need to thrive.