A recent family visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma taught me so much about its Greenwood District that I didn’t know before. Particularly surprising among this abundance of new-to-me information is that after it was burned down, the Greenwood District was rebuilt and thriving within ten years. Even though Tulsa’s Black Wall Street had been subjected to days of terror and destruction at the hands of white Oklahomans who were aided by city and federal government entities, Greenwood’s community summoned remarkable resilience and rebuilt their businesses.
This astonishing fact has been left out of every public conversation I’ve heard or article I’ve read about Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in recent years, yet it seems central to the narrative when telling the story of Greenwood. After all, if we tell the story of a phoenix, we don’t end the story at its burning and death; instead, we continue the bird’s tale until it has renewed itself and risen from its own ashes.
One is left wondering then, why such an integral, restorative piece of Greenwood’s story is left out of the narrative, even when a spotlight is shone upon the historic district during this, the year of its centennial commemoration. One wonders, too, why this thriving, then shattered, then renewed area of Black businesses currently occupies a space of economic struggle. Furthermore, when documentaries and popular dramatic shows turn their attention to the massacre of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, why do they not zoom in on the brave Black men – many of them veterans – who fought against the white mob determined to extricate Dick Rowland from his jail cell to execute their own twisted sense of vigilante justice? Furthermore, what of the white newspaper that instigated the violence? The internment camps to which Black Tulsans were corralled before they’d be blamed for the lawlessness that engulfed their homes and businesses? The white woman whose scream caused Dick Rowland to run out of an elevator? The armed white rioters, some of whom were later deputized to help “control” the violence? The smiling white men depicted posing in the foreground while ashes, smoke, and corpses decorate their panoramic backdrop?
In other words, what purpose is served by telling so selective a version of Greenwood’s story? Could the underlying purpose be to further exonerate the white American collective conscience by pretending Black Tulsans only exist as historic victims of this atrocity, whose community never recovered is still in need of saving? Could the purpose be to perpetuate the idea that nothing can be done because nothing ever has been done, so we should all just stop talking about it since it cannot be helped? Could the purpose be to ensure that Black and white Americans alike feel so defeated that we merely look across at each other, throw up our hands, and go back to the status quo?
Could the purpose of telling so selective a version of Greenwood’s story be to erase its real history?
This week, I’d like to share Black-owned businesses that I hope you’ll consider following, patronizing, amplifying, and recommending. When we seek out and support Black businesses, we are nurturing in Black Americans the embers of the entrepreneurial spirit that has so often in our country’s past been terrorized out of us as we have time and again had to rebuild without the help our white counterparts often receive.
Consider, for example, teen Kheris Rogers. She turned her experience of being picked on and bullied because of her skin color into a fashion line that can empower us all, and help us to gain the confidence to flaunt those aspects of who we are that make us unique.
If you’re a planner lover like I am, you might be interested in Morgan Harper Nichols’ creation over at Garden24. Alongside the 18-month planner full of Nichols’ beautiful illustrations and affirmations, Garden 24 offers affordable prints to adorn your home and gift to loved ones.
For words of encouragement and refreshment, I highly recommend Oh Happy Dani, Black Liturgies, and The Nap Ministry. Each of these women has created a space that is built to nurture Black rest, peace, and joy. They offer honesty, insight, and a deep well of wisdom from which we all can draw.
Finally, writer Luvvie Ajayi Jones has been highlighting a Black-owned business each day this August, for Black Business Month. I highly recommend following her writer page and heeding her suggestions for a wide range of well-made products, from loofahs to head wraps to skin care to seasoning blends.
To me, the lessons that Tulsa’s Black business district has to teach us are plentiful. We would benefit from spending some time reflecting on each of these questions, so that we can carry Greenwood’s lessons with us:
- How much wealth might the descendants of Greenwood’s original entrepreneurs possess today, if Black homes and businesses were never burned to the ground, never negatively impacted by the allure of newly integrated white spaces, never cut off from patrons by a highway cutting through the community?
- Who crafts the stories we tell about American history, and for what reason are the stories narrated in the way that they are?
- When we seek to understand more about historical events we don’t know much about, are we seeking out primary sources? Are we listening to people who perpetrated violence or to people who were subjected to it?
- Where in your own community is there evidence of historic violence and inequity? What can you do to address these issues and seek to promote equity and inclusion?
As we draw ever closer to the end of this 52-installment series, I am increasingly grateful for those of you who are still here, plugging in each week to do the hard work of unlearning racial bias. Continue showing up, and we will keep working toward building more peaceful communities, one piece at a time.