How Greenwood developed a thriving underground economy (2023)


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net. Du Bois saw the key to black prosperity in places like Tulsa, where black residents frequented black stores. He is still a model today.

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How Greenwood developed a thriving underground economy (1)

backVictor Luxon

Victor Luckerson conducted more than 200 interviews and analyzed thousands of land records, lawsuits and newspaper reports for his new book on Greenwood, Built of Fire.

(Video) Introducing The Greenwood Initiative, Economic Justice for Black America

When W.E.B. Du Bois visited Tulsa's Greenwood County, Oklahoma, in early 1921, he, like many others, was impressed by what he found. The famous intellectual went on a speaking tour in the South for several weeks. In his travelogues, he writes of brutal lynchings and abuses as old as the country itself—older, in fact. What caught Du Bois' attention was what his men accomplished despite this. “Throughout the South, with a few exceptions, new hope and strength were observed among the colored people,” he wrote in his diary. "It is not an increase in confidence in the whites, on the contrary, it is a clear awareness of one's own abilities."

More than anywhere else in the country, Greenwood represents this "new hope and strength." At the beginning of 1921, 11,000 peopleThe place of flight is on the rise.Among more than 150 businesses, the area is home to at least 15 doctors, a dozen tailors, seven lawyers, a jewelry store, a clothing factory and an ice rink. Some entrepreneurs are worth at least $500,000 in today's dollars, some are today's millionaires. In less than two decades, Greenwood has gone from being a barren lowland area north of downtown Tulsa to a center of black economic activity in the Southwest.



Du Bois was particularly interested in how entire communities could use collective economies to achieve collective success. In the early 20th century, as Jim Crow laws became more stringent in Tulsa and elsewhere, many local black economies that operated in parallel with white economies grew and grew. According to the report, between 1870 and 1920, the financial prospects of blacks grew rapidly to equal $1 of black wealth for every $10 of white wealth.a recent studyEconomists from Princeton University and the University of Bonn, Germany. It wasn't even close to equality, but it was incredible progress for someone just out of slavery.

(Video) Greenwood and the Tulsa Race Riots | BOSS: The Black Experience in Business | PBS

Blacks work their way to success by relying on what Du Bois called "closed economic circles." When he was on tour looking for examples of group economics, what fascinated him most was a Greenwood theater called The Dreamland and its clever owner, Loula Williams.

Williams' rise mirrors that of Greenwood himself. Like most of her neighbors, she was originally from Tennessee and had moved to Oklahoma. She came to Tulsa in the early 20th century with her husband John Wesley Williams and her son W.D. Although she found work as a teacher in the nearby town of Fisher, Laura Williams was determined to enter the business world. .

In 1912, after patiently saving some of her earnings as a preschool teacher, she purchased land at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, a center of social and economic activity affectionately known as "Deep Greenwood." . There, she built a three-story brick building that housed her family residence, business offices, and her ella Williams bakery. With its 12-foot soda fountain and great selection of ice cream, the ice cream parlor quickly became Greenwood's premier family gathering spot. WD would later say that it was the only place on the block where you could drink non-pirate whiskey.

Ownership of the property distinguished Williams and many of his Greenwood contemporaries from other immigrants who fled the South in the early days of the Great Migration. In 1910, shortly before Williams bought the land from him, 35 percent of black Oklahomans owned his home, compared with 23 percent in Illinois and just 8 percent in New York. . In 1914, Greenwood's home ownership rate was estimated to be as high as 50 percent.

Oklahoma's black population is well positioned for progress. Some are members of indigenous tribes who are also of African descent and receive individual land allotments from tribal commons. Others were middle-class immigrants from the Deep South heading west with the promise of a racial atmosphere that would foster their success, not stifle it, offering, as one pamphlet put it, "an equal chance." National black leaders of the day often held sharply different views of the best path for black advancement, but all agreed that the independent spirit growing in Oklahoma provided a model to follow. Du Bois praised the state's "frugal and intelligent people of color", while his philosophical opponent Booker T. Washington praised "the disproportionate number of black immigrants [who] have become part of the landowner."


In 1914, Williams and her husband, John, purchased another property, a 7,000-square-foot lot across the street from the candy store. They quickly transformed the space into the Theater of Dreams. It was the first black-owned theater in Tulsa and one of the few theaters owned by a black woman. (John changed interest from him to Laura in 1915). The opening of Dreamland was a headline in a black-owned newspaper,tulsa star, encouraged residents to support the business "because it was built by blacks for blacks."

Williams promoted Dreamland as "the only colored theater in town" and was known as a "racial woman" and "the queen of entertainment" in her glossy image. 1918 Dreamland revamped before the Hollywood blockbustercleopatra, hired a group of black contractors to do the job. "We ask that you patronize Race not because of who he is, but because of what he serves," he later wrote in a letter to clients.

Du Bois believed that businesses like Dreamland were key for blacks to thrive in a segregated world. Although Du Bois was initially known as a sociologist and activist, he studied economics at graduate school in Berlin. He spent much of his life arguing that blacks need to be more deliberate about how they spend their money and run their businesses to benefit the race as a whole. In a 1907 article, he estimated that 300,000 blacks in southern cities participated in a "collective economy" for "economic security."

In Greenwood, residents protected black businesses in part by avoiding white-owned businesses. A few years after Dreamland opened, a white businessman named William Redfearn opened a competing Dixie Theater across the street. When Du Bois walked the streets of Greenwood in the spring of 1921, there was hardly any competition. "The Color Theater is always full. The White Theater is rarely visited," Du Bois wrote in his travelogue. "People of color are using the boycott and racial economic solidarity in Tulsa to a degree I've never seen before."

Financial cooperation is key to the success of the community. After the city was unable to provide adequate funding, Greenwood business leaders funded the community's first library and hospital. Funding for the restoration of the church came from a combination of soft loans from some of the wealthiest landowners in the neighborhood and funds raised by restorers for Sunday dinners. “Blacks back then were independent-minded and had a special pride in the black community,” said W.D. Williams in a 1971 interview with a local Tulsa publication. "They're not going to buy from white entrepreneurs what they can get from black entrepreneurs, so black entrepreneurs don't take them for granted."

This promising model, the closed economic circle that Du Bois had long sought, fell apart within a few months of his visit.

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On the night of May 31, 1921, Loula Williams was showing a movie in her dreams when a man walked onto the theater stage. "We will not allow him to be lynched," the man declared. He closes this place. We will go to the city and stop them.

Outside the gates of sleep, blacks are arming for the Tulsa County courthouse, where young black man Dick Rowland is being held on trumped-up charges of attempted rape. Later that night, armed blacks and whites shot each other in the downtown streets. On June 1, after the initial violence subsided, a well-organized mob of thousands of white men stormed Greenwood, torching Dreamland, the Williams Candy Store, and more than 1,200 homes and businesses.

While the massacre was directly triggered by the charges against Rowland, Greenwood's financial success also fueled white discontent. In the spring of 1921, Tulsa was an oil boom town in the midst of a recession. A white Tulsa man recalled, "Whites are losing their jobs, but blacks are still working because of the lower wages." Greenwood's black landowners were sitting on land that Tulsa's white elite desperately wanted; After the Massacre The next day, Tulsa real estate leaders announced a plan to buy back all burned properties. The plan was thwarted by lawyers and black landowners like Loula Williams, who refused to sell.

The Williams family made it out alive, but with almost nothing. With Greenwood's communal self-sufficiency in tatters, the family attempted to seek help from outside agencies. They get very little support. Insurance companies refused to cover Williams's losses, citing the riot exemption clause in their contracts. The state government rejected the request for financial aid. Some white businessmen offered reconstruction loans, but at exorbitant interest rates. For years, the Williams family has struggled to keep Dreamland afloat. In addition to financial problems, Loula Williams suffers a sudden nervous breakdown.

In the mid-1920s, Du Bois revisited the neighborhood, praising its resilience: “the scars were there, but Greenwood was brash and boisterous,” he wrote. But by then Williams's health was in decline. He died in 1927. Greenwood enjoyed a second heyday in the 1940s and 1950s after reconstruction, but problems like hastily built dilapidated homes after the Tulsa race massacre persisted for decades. A community that has learned to take care of itself will never come this close to realizing Du Bois's ideal form of collective black progress.

Du Bois was an early advocate of racial integration, but over time he began to doubt that blacks would be fully accepted by white society. Greenwood's ultimate fate may have influenced his thinking. He began to increasingly emphasize group economics, which put him at odds with the NAACP he co-founded and its fervent pursuit of desegregation. In the 1940s, Du Bois advocated for the black community to create its own socialized health care system, community banks, and a consumer-oriented economy in which black entrepreneurs could sell goods created at or near the cost of production. by black producers. "Today we work for other people and wages are reduced to the limit of survival," he asserted. "Tomorrow we can work for ourselves, exchange services, produce more and more of the goods we consume, earn a living wage, and work in civilized conditions."

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Greenwood is a role model in many ways. Communities create an indelible legacy of self-determination that generations of blacks have worked to emulate. "Many cities have their own version of Greenwood because black communities know they can create an ecosystem that works for them," said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies black entrepreneurship and land ownership. Perry) said.

During the Jim Crow era, places like Durham, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, reflected Greenwood's blend of black entrepreneurship and community development. In the 1970s, when racial integration was on the rise, civil rights activist Floyd McKisick tried to create a planned community in North Carolina called Soul City, hoping it would serve as a shining symbol of black economic power. The community never raised the money it needed to fully develop. “When people talk about maximizing the underground economy, you could say it's about ownership,” Perry said. "How can we own property, businesses, and culture in ways that improve communities, not individuals?"

Today, with the "buy-buy" movement in places likeÁngel;Portland, Oregon., IBirmingham, Alabama, Black residents looking to purchase commercial real estate in their neighborhoods. They see the value in having an economic driver for the community, as Loula Williams once did. Greenwood's "Queen of the Party" isn't just selling entertainment, she's laying out a blueprint that black businesses still want to follow.

Are we doing better than our ancestors?

In our new series, we explore black advancement and racial equality. We begin with questions about economic inequality. So take a moment to think about what you just read. Think about where you are from, where you are, the community you call your own. Think about the generation of your grandparents and parents. Think about where you are now. Think about what happens next.

This article was published in collaboration with"Discovering Inequality"A review of more than a century of research developed at Columbia University's Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.

The Headway Initiative is funded by the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller philanthropic advisers serving as financial backers. The Woodcock Foundation funds the Headway public square. Sponsors have no control over story selection, focus, or editorial process, and do not review stories prior to publication. The Times retains full editorial control over the Headway initiative.


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(Video) Black Wall Street Established in Tulsa, Oklahoma | Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre | History


Where was the successful black community called Greenwood located quizlet? ›

Greenwood, Oklahoma: In 1921, about 11,000 Black residents lived in the neighborhood of Greenwood, north of the Frisco railroad tracks in Tulsa.

What were the causes and effects of the Tulsa massacre of 1921? ›

The strained relationship between the white and black communities, the heightened jealousy of the success of the Black Wall Street area and the elevator encounter led to the Tulsa Race Riot. Armed white men looted, burned and destroyed the black community.

What was the Black Wall Street quizlet? ›

- Blacks fought back. What was "Black Wall Street" and why was it called that? - Community of Greenwood in North Tulsa, Oklahoma inhabited by African Americans with more than 100 businesses in a span of less than a mile. - Was called "Black Wall Street" because it was extremely prosperous.

What happened in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1965? ›

The event is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. The attackers burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood—at the time one of the wealthiest black communities in the United States, colloquially known as "Black Wall Street."


1. Killer Mike and the creation of Greenwood, a Black-owned digital bank
(CBS News)
2. Rare 1920s Footage: All-Black Towns Living the American Dream | National Geographic
(National Geographic)
3. The Greenwood District: Tulsa's Lost Black Wall Street
4. Uncovering the Greenwood Massacre, nearly a century later
(60 Minutes)
5. Resentment Builds As Black Wall Street Thrives | OWN Spotlight | OWN
6. Australian economy 'really is' booming: Greenwood
(Sky News Australia)


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