Everyone Should Know What Happened to Black Wall Street

Home Race Everyone Should Know What Happened to Black Wall Street

No, the massacre of hundreds of Black folks—one of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history—really happened, and most people, especially white Americans, have never even heard of it. 

This essay contains discussion of anti-Black violences, including assault and murder.

“Those of the whites who seek to maintain the old white group control naturally do not relish seeing Negroes emancipating themselves from the old system.” —Walter White, “The Eruption of Tulsa”

The makers of HBO’s “Watchmen” went to great lengths to bring a little known piece of history to light during the premier of the show on Sunday—the bombing of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the summer of 1921. Following the premiere, many took to Twitter to express their dismay and surprise to learn that the event was not historical fiction. No, the massacre of hundreds of Black folks—one of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history—really happened, and most people, especially white Americans, have never even heard of it. 

It was May 31, 1921. At first, we saw a bunch of men with those big, pine torches come through the backyard… 

I remember our mother put us under the table. She took the longest tablecloth she had to cover four children and told us not to say a word. It was a horrifying thing for a little girl that’s only 6 years old… 

I guess the most shocking thing was seeing people, to whom you had never done anything to irritate, who just took it upon themselves to destroy your property because they didn’t want you to have those things. And they were teaching you a lesson. Those were all new ideas to me.

Olivia Hooker, one of the last survivors of the attack, recently died in November 2018

Greenwood was a community in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma, established and governed by the Black people who lived there. With a host of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and hard workers, nearly 15,000 African Americans lived and worked in this prosperous and booming business town. Visceral anti-Blackness kept the races segregated at the behest of white Tulsans, but when the prosperity of Greenwood began to overshadow the economy and amenities of its neighboring white communities, white fear and hatred manifested in another way—in an act of terrorism. 

It was a white lie that sparked the flame. A Black boy accidentally stepped on a white girl’s foot, and she in turn accused him of intentional criminal assault. He, of course, was quickly detained, and when a group of men from Greenwood came to the jail to ensure that a white mob didn’t drag out the boy to hang him, it was white aggression that pushed the tension between them all to a tipping point. 

It was around 5 o’clock the next morning when more than 10,000 white men descended upon Greenwood in a pointed attack. Homes were pillaged and set on fire. Dynamite was used to bomb the city while more firepower was dropped from planes used to spy on the movements of the scared Black citizens trying to flee. Some estimations put the toll as high as 300 citizens of Greenwood murdered that morning—some shot or bludgeoned, others incinerated along with their homes. “One story was told to me by an eye-witness of five colored men trapped in a burning house,” writes Walter White, an investigating NAACP Official, in his record of what happened that day. “Four burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames.”

Bodies were buried in mass, unmarked graves, many of them burned beyond recognition. It was once rumored that two truck loads of corpses were thrown into the Arkansas River, but there is no official confirmation of this story. Though, it would not be surprising if it were true. Not a single person has ever been convicted for these crimes. Just as acts of white terrorism are not viewed or named as such by those who control the dominant narrative, this act of mass murder, arson, and displacement of thousands of innocent Black people was not seen as a crime by those who had the power to treat it as such. 

It is shameful that this history has been obscured and that whiteness continues to be sanitized. Everyone should know about what happened to Black Wall Street. To Black Wall Streets, in fact, as there have been more than Greenwood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which ended in bloodshed. The others—like Boley, Oklahoma, The Hayti Community of Durham, North Carolina, Jackson Ward of Richmond, Virginia, The Fourth Avenue District of Birmingham, Alabama—all saw their thriving Black economies decline due to the greed and racial anxiety of white Americans, who used intimidation and sabotage to thwart Black prosperity and maintain the widening of the racial wealth gap—a direct consequence of chattel slavery, antebellum inequities, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, and more state-sanctioned tactics to ensure Black immobility. 

Even worse, this bombing is only one among a significant list of white terrorism against Black people and others in service of white supremacy that went unpunished and that are intentionally erased and ignored. Far too many people have no knowledge of the 1985 MOVE Bombing in Philadelphia, when police bombed a Black community and killed 11 people. Even fewer know about the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, when members of the American Nazi Party and the KKK assassinated 6 anti-Klan union organizers in full view of news cameras and were acquitted by all white juries. The instances of reactionary white violence throughout history are abundant, so abundant. It’s frustrating to know, and to be reminded again and again, that these things are intentionally buried because ignorance of this history helps to keep white supremacy alive. 

The ugliness of white violence continues to draw breath even now. It shows itself in different ways, and often just as bloody. The slaughtering of the Charleston Nine. The display of white nationalism by the Alt-right and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as they marched towards predominantly Black neighborhoods. It’s alive in gentrification and in white people calling the cops to use them as a weapon against Black people in their presence, in white spaces where we aren’t “supposed” to be. These are all actions taken directly against Black mobility and Black life. White terrorism has always been a tool of white supremacy. 

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