The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of 'Black Wall Street'
 

Adventure.com | Amber Gibson

Known as ‘Black Wall Street’ in the early 20th century, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was home to one of the US’s most prominent concentrations of African-American businesses. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre changed that but today, Black Tulsans have once again reclaimed a piece of Greenwood.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny February weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the tidy brick buildings and clean streets in the Greenwood District are busy with families. Children’s laughter echoes through the air and you’ll probably spot the colorful Black Wall Street mural painted by local artist Chris “Sker” Rogers—but the orderly blocks hold no sign of the tragedy that occurred here a century ago.

In the early 20th century, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was known as Black Wall Street—the area had one of the most prominent concentrations of Black businesses in the United States. Greenwood was a bustling cultural and economic haven for Tulsa’s Black residents, home to a theater, restaurants, banks and doctors’ offices.

Within the 35 blocks of the Greenwood District, Tulsa’s Black community supported one another and thrived despite pervasive racism and segregation. But that all changed on May 31, 1921 when one of the worst instances of racial violence in the history of the United States occurred.

On that night, angry white mobs attacked and brutally killed hundreds of Greenwood residents, burning homes with children inside, looting businesses and destroying everything in sight. What became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre was a hate crime carried out on a massive scale, fueled by sensationalist media coverage of a supposed assault of a white girl by a Black boy in an elevator.

To understand and appreciate the spirit of Greenwood, I head to Greenwood Rising, one of the most significant recent museum openings in the United States. The museum reflects on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and is also a celebration of the resilient Black community that thrived before and after an act of domestic terrorism that is not often acknowledged in history books.

My immersive experience started with an uplifting contemporary montage video set to Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” followed by a historic timeline illuminating the rise of Greenwood.

Because Black people were not allowed to patronize white businesses, they spent their money within their own community, creating a self-sustaining city within a city. As if on cue, I stepped through a door into a vibrant 1920s barbershop, lightheartedly interacting with holographic barbers, before being plunged into the horrific violence and destruction of the overnight attack that killed hundreds of residents and left more than 10,000 Black Tulsans homeless.

While land and commercial property still isn’t back in the hands of the Black community, there are more Black-owned businesses that have opened or plan on opening soon. I continue to be inspired by the Black entrepreneurs who paved the way for me and wanted to carry on their legacy in the same place.

Venita Cooper, Tulsa Store Owner

Three Tulsans who survived that barbaric night as young children share their personal testimony and heartbreaking memories as voiceovers.

Artifacts and interactive displays acknowledge and celebrate the strong, persevering pillars of the community who helped to rebuild Greenwood—you’re left with a stirring call to action in the spirit of racial reconciliation.  A must if visiting, and while admission is free, tickets must be reserved online in advance.

Today, Greenwood is rising again. A spate of new businesses ranging from workout studios to art galleries have created a renaissance of sorts in the Greenwood District, according to local historian and author Hannibal B. Johnson.

Although the Black community rebuilt most of Greenwood in the decade following the Tulsa Race Massacre’s aftermath, it never quite reached the same levels of prosperity. Recent years however have seen promising new businesses opening.

Greenwood is now home to over 40 Black-owned independent businesses, and according to the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, 80 per cent of these are owned or operated by women, contributing over $5 million annually to Tulsa’s economy.

“Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District is both inspirational and aspirational,” Johnson tells me. “The historical role models who created the Greenwood District and made it into a nationally-renowned Black business and entrepreneurial hub did so against great odds, not the least of which was systemic racism in its most blatant forms.

He says the indomitable human spirit they exemplified is the stuff of inspiration. “They set the bar high for future generations,” says Johnson, “offering up something to which Black Tulsans and others could, for generations, aspire.”

Around the corner from Greenwood Rising, I stop for a refreshing iced coffee at Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge, before browsing the graphic tees The Greenwood Gallery and colorful kicks at Silhouette Sneakers & Art next door, where owner Venita Cooper brightly welcomes every potential customer who walks through the door.

“Some of my neighbors are first-time entrepreneurs just like me,” Cooper says. “So we have definitely come together to help one another and support each other’s businesses.”

Cooper often hosts events with local musical artists and opening her business in Greenwood was important to her. “While land and commercial property still isn’t back in the hands of the Black community, there are more Black-owned businesses that have opened or plan on opening soon. I continue to be inspired by the Black entrepreneurs who paved the way for me and wanted to carry on their legacy in the same place.”

I notice a few ladies in chic athleisure walking out of The BluPrint Studio and I’m disappointed that I didn’t time my visit better to take an extreme hip hop class with Marquita Owens.


There’s so much optimism in Greenwood now, but it was a long hard road to make these streets feel like a safe haven and celebration of Black success once more.


The fitness studio owner and instructor lives just a few minutes away from her studio and became an instructor at the studio during her own weight loss journey before purchasing and renaming it in 2020.

“My students are a core group of locals,” she says. “It feels more like a family more than anything.” If her energetic Instagram posts are any indication, Owens is just the right balance of cheerleader and drill sergeant that her students need. “I love what I do because I get an opportunity to help people transform their lives and motivate them beyond where they see themselves.”

As daylight wanes, I stop at Fulton Street Books & Coffee, where at least 70 per cent of the books are written by or feature BIPOC or marginalized communities. I pick up Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink, a historical fiction account of the Tulsa Race Massacre, to read on the flight home. There’s so much optimism in Greenwood now, but it was a long hard road to make these streets feel like a safe haven and celebration of Black success once more.

The smell of fried chicken wafting through the air piques my interest when I step outside again and I follow my nose to Wanda J’s, a third-generation, family-owned restaurant run by five sisters serving the best soul food in town. Here, Glory Wells and her sisters are keeping their grandmother’s legacy alive with their home cooking—their legendary chicken is based on their grandmother’s recipes—opening their restaurant in Greenwood in 2016.

Wells says she loves meeting and building relationships with her customers, both regulars or visitors, and watching them chow down. “Being a small business owner on Greenwood is a blessing,” she says. “The area has such a rich history. My sisters and I grew up in the family business, but now we are using everything we’ve learned over the years to run a business ourselves.”


Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in travel, food, wine and wellness. Her work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, The Daily Telegraph and more.