TULSA—“Black Wall Street” T-shirts were on display alongside local art and images of Angela Davis, Spike Lee and Toni Morrison at Ricco Wright’s art gallery Thursday, as jazz music played on a set of turntables.
It is a far cry from what the bustling black community of Greenwood, once known as Black Wall Street, was a century ago, before white mobs burned it to the ground and killed hundreds. But the neighborhood, just north of downtown Tulsa, has become part of the new wave of revitalization there as several entities work to reconcile a violent past and build new opportunities.
“For me it was about just bringing art, music and culture here,” said Mr. Wright, whose gallery moved to a new Greenwood location in March. “People are coming to pay their respects to the Black Wall Street pioneers, and those who lost their lives, and those who stayed, in an attempt to rebuild Black Wall Street.”
Tulsa and its violent history have entered the national spotlight. Protesters plan to take to the streets in Tulsa and in cities across the U.S. on Friday to mark Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, and to demand reform to the American justice system after several killings of African-Americans by police. On Saturday, President Trump is hosting a rally here that officials expect will draw 100,000 people—supporters of the president and those coming to protest him—to this city of 400,000.
Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!” He has previously criticized authorities in those cities for not taking a harder line against the violence and looting that has sometimes accompanied protests since the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The details of the 1921 massacre that destroyed Greenwood lay dormant for decades. Now, as the 100th anniversary approaches, the city is finally reckoning with its history of racial violence. A bipartisan contingent of state lawmakers created the 1921 Commission, which is building a history center commemorating the community that once existed and the massacre that destroyed it. It is financially supporting black artists and entrepreneurs and training teachers in how to tell students about its blighted past.
Greenwood, on the north side of Tulsa’s downtown, was once a thriving black business district, nationally known after World War I for its affluent African-American community, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. But in 1921, a young black man was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator, sparking a confrontation at the courthouse over his fate.
In response, white mobs destroyed the black neighborhood’s 35 blocks and killed as many as 300 people, historians believe. The rampage was dubbed a riot, which kept insurance companies from having to pay for any of the destroyed buildings, according to the historical society. For decades, even most Tulsa natives knew nothing about what had happened.
“There was always this idea in the back of the black community’s mind that this could happen again, so they didn’t talk about it,” said Phil Armstrong, project director for the 1921 Commission. “And in the white community it was such a black eye, such a stain on Tulsa, that they didn’t acknowledge it.”
Black business owners in Greenwood rebuilt—for a time—until many lost their land again in the 1950s and ’60s to government seizures for interstate construction and other “urban renewal” projects, historians said. The community shifted farther north and its businesses faded away.
A major goal of the 1921 Commission is to promote black homeownership and business ownership in a newly economically charged area, Mr. Armstrong said. “These people were able to rebuild,” he said. “That’s an amazing story. It’s the American story. A story of resilience.”
Dirt has begun moving at the site of the 11,000-square-foot history center, which the commission expects to be finished in time for events next year marking the centennial of the June 1 massacre.
“We wanted it to be unifying for Tulsa,” said state Sen. Kevin Matthews, who spearheaded the commission’s creation in 2015.
When Venita Cooper decided to step away from a career as a school administrator and pursue selling sneakers, which had always been her passion, she found help from all over the place, she said. She attended a Tulsa Economic Development Corp. business-planning course, and was able to receive a low-interest loan. She got training from Black UpStart, which helps develop black entrepreneurs, and she won a pitch contest that granted her $17,500 in startup funding. She met a landlord eager for a concept like hers.
“It was like all these supports came from across the community,” Ms. Cooper said. “The mayor was my first customer.”
Ms. Cooper opened Silhouette Sneakers & Art in Greenwood last year, where it is doing well, despite being only months old when Covid-19 lockdowns forced it to close, she said. A non-native Tulsan, she said learning about the area’s history has been eye-opening.
“But we’re not going to be Black Wall Street as we knew it, 36 blocks of tight black businesses,“ she said. ”There are black entrepreneurs building businesses all across Tulsa.”
Each classroom at the Greenwood Leadership Academy, a nonprofit elementary school in North Tulsa, is named after one of the businesses that once existed on Black Wall Street. The aim is to “drill into students that they come from excellence,” said Jabar Schumate, director of the Met Cares Foundation, which opened the school in 2014.
Brenda Alford, a Tulsa career-safety coordinator, overheard enough conversations as a child to grow up with the vague knowledge that her grandmother once had to hide in a church for her life. But she didn’t find out about the massacre until she was an adult, when a law firm contacted her about a possible lawsuit for reparations.
Her grandparents had been successful African-American entrepreneurs, owners of multiple homes and businesses, including a shoe shop, record shop and chauffeur service. All were burned to the ground as they fled for their lives. Afterward, the family rebuilt and restarted the shoe business, but they never reached the same level of affluence, Ms. Alford said.
“Our families would have liked to promote generational wealth in our families, but we never had that opportunity,” she said. “We lost our economic base.”
The current Greenwood efforts are important for both recognition of the past and the future, Ms. Alford said.
“It’s not a sense of ‘Let’s do it.’ It is ‘Let’s bring it back, because our ancestors did it so well,’ ” she said.