27 September 2020
Until recently, many Americans had never heard of the Greenwood District of the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was once one of the largest Black communities in the United States. It was destroyed in 1921 during what the Oklahoma Historical Society calls the "single worst incident of racial violence in American history."
Before 1921, most of Tulsa's 10,000 African Americans lived in the neighborhood. The Greenwood District included successful Black-owned businesses, two newspapers, several churches, a hotel and library. Some called Greenwood ‘the Black Wall Street,' because it was so financially successful.
Riots started in June of 1921 after a Black teenager was falsely accused of attacking a white woman. An armed mob took over the Black area, stealing, and setting fire to homes and businesses. When the riots ended, almost all of Greenwood's homes and businesses had been destroyed.
An investigation carried out in 2001 found that 168 people died in the violence. But other reports say the number is much higher – as many as 300.
Most of the people of Greenwood were left homeless following the riots. They spent that winter living in tents.
But Greenwood rebuilt.
Gregory Fairchild is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia. His father and grandfather grew up in Greenwood.
"My grandfather grew up in and watched the destruction of such a community and also watched such a community come back and raised his son there," Fairchild said.
His father was raised in Greenwood after the riots.
"...My dad, growing up in that community, had two college-educated parents, and he himself became college-educated, again solidly middle class."
Greenwood fell into poverty in the 1960s and 1970s. So-called urban renewal projects changed the center of Tulsa, including Greenwood. A major road cut off the business district from the rest of the neighborhood. Banks moved out of the area, which meant there were few chances for local people to build wealth through savings or loans.
In addition, the civil rights movement gave Black people the ability to go to stores once reserved for white people only. This meant people spent less money in the Greenwood area.
"The loss of this economic capital has impacted all...of the African American experience, from education to political influence to the ability to even preserve and tell our history," said Brent Leggs. He is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
Leggs believes that understanding Greenwood's history can help create new neighborhoods.
He said that knowing that African American communities were once successful centers of culture will make people "able to re-establish this sense of community and the opportunity to create healthy and vibrant neighborhoods," he says.
At the University of Virginia, Fairchild studies ways to bring wealth back to Black communities.
Although segregation is illegal, most Americans remain racially separated. Many live in neighborhoods and go to schools with people of their own race. Fairchild said this leads to a decrease in social and economic opportunities for Black Americans. That financial inequity, he said, begins at birth.
One way to solve the problem of inequity is by establishing banks and credit unions in lower-income communities, owned and operated by Black people and other minorities, Fairchild said. He added that Americans must recognize that society remains mostly segregated – and take steps to change that.
I'm Susan Shand.
VOA's Dora Mekouar reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
district – n. a specific area in a community
prominent – adj. a person or thing of importance
church – n. a Christian house of worship
tent – n. temporary housing made of cloth
urban renewal – n. an American plan of the 1960s, now discredited, to rebuild the center of cities
capital – n. the money one has to invest
preserve – v. to keep in original state
vibrant – adj. filled with the joy of life
segregation – n. In the United States, the 20th-century policy of separating white and black people in schools, communities, etc.
inequity – n. a state of inequality