“Destruction of Black WallStreet: Remembrance, Respect, & Reparations”

  ***  I am presenting my award-winning PowerPoint “Destruction of Black Wall Street: Remembrance, Respect, & Reparations” tonight at 6pm Oklahoma City University***

In addition to 300 years of chattel slavery, African-American have endured, almost equally oppressive systems of black codes, sharecropping, peonage farming, Jim Crowism, lynching, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, police brutality, Red Lining and other oppressive schemes have greatly impeded the development of the African-American community.   And yet, it is undeniable that African-Americans have overcome many hurdles, shattered numerous barriers, and set countless precedents on the way to freedom, justice, and equality.  One such accomplishment  was the establishment of the Black Wall street of America—Greenwood—right in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

The great Dr. W.E.B. Dubois stated “I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa.  The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations and have made money in oil.”  Although Greenwood was not its own municipality, for all intents and purposes it functioned as an independent community.  The laws in the state of Oklahoma prevented Greenwood residents from participating in the Tulsa city government.  Not to be deterred, the residents of Greenwood ran their part of town as a separate entity, and when asked, many identified their hometown as Greenwood, not Tulsa.  Because all of life’s necessities for Greenwood residents were within the geographic boundaries of their community, it has been said “Greenwood residents did not have any reason to leave the community for anything but shoes.”   In fact, Greenwood was so economically self-sufficient, purportedly a dollar circulated within the community fifty times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community.  Noted Greenwood historian Scott Ellsworth described Greenwood’s business district and neighborhoods before the massacre:

The black population had grown to almost 11,000 and the community counted two black schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington, one black Hospital, and two black newspapers, The Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun.  [Greenwood] at the time had some thirteen churches and three fraternal lodges—Masonic, Knights of Pythias, and I.O.O.F.—plus two black [movie] theaters and a black public library.… Two and three-story brick buildings lined the avenue, housing a variety of commercial establishments, including a dry goods store, two theaters, groceries, confectionaries, restaurants, billiard halls… [and] offices of Tulsa’s unusually large number of lack lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.… Along Detroit Avenue and certain other streets were the neat, sturdy homes of some of those Black Tulsans who owned businesses lining Greenwood Avenue, augmented by the houses of the city’s Black professional class. Within this elite group, some were rumored to have assets in excess of $100,000.

However on June 1, 1921, a mob  of  2000 Whites under the protection of city and state law pillaged and destroyed during the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history. The terrorist mob destroyed 36 square blocks killed upwards of 1000 people, and  left  10,000 Blacks homeless, destitute, and traumatized.  Afterwards city and state officials condone this terrorism, blamed the innocent Blacks, and instituted a cover-up so successful the horrors of the Greenwood Massacre were effectively blotted out of history for almost 75 years.  Over the last 10 years a group of dedicated historians, attorneys, politicians, and community activist have been fighting for Greenwood and its descendants to received proper remembrance, respect, and reparations.

 In 2003, I was blessed to be the only law student member of the Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC) which was an “all-star” legal team that including Harvard Law and Civil Rights icon Professor Charles Ogletree and the late great Johnnie Cochrane.   The RCC filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for Northern Oklahoma.   At the time the lawsuit was filed there were still 171 known living survivors of the Greenwood Massacre.   This “slam dunk” case for reparations and justice was dismissed  due to Statute of Limitations (essentially saying it was too late to file a lawsuit for what happen) first at the district court level, then the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally “without comment” by the U.S. Supreme Court.  To date there are now only 45 known living survivors of the Greenwood Massacre.  What’s worse daily the survivors are dying knowing that their justice system “without comment” turned their back on them.   Once our legal avenues were denied by the “justice” system  we made a determination to attempt to get a remedy through federal legislation.  So, in 2005, I was asked to organize and coordinate a national town hall meeting featuring Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and several survivors to call upon Congress to act.  The town hall was was attended by almost approximately 1000 people at my church in Tulsa and re-energized our drive towards justice.   calling upon Congress to act  . In 2007, we finally won the introduction of bill in congress to remove the statue of limitations from the case, which would have allowed it to move forward. We were even able to secure a congressional hearing. However, the bill never received a house vote and “died.”

In closing,  I’m reminded of a verse in the  Black National Anthem “stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod”  as for almost ninety years the victims of the Greenwood Massacre have been  unsuccessfully seeking justice down ever “road” possible only to be struck down with the  “chasting rod” of injustice.  However, I am happy to report the fight is not over as next week Rep. John Conyers and others will introduce a bill in congress to provide reparations to the known survivors and their descendants.  The bill is modeled after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided each surviving Japanese-American unconstitutionally held in concentration camps during WWII $20,000.00 and their descendant $10,000.00.  So, there is still hope that we are able to get justice while some of the survivors our still alive.  Regardless, I will not stop until justice prevails.

***Tonight my presentation will 1) briefly describe how the unique circumstances of Black Oklahoma produced a Greenwood; 2) explain the demographics of Greenwood; 3) present a compelling case for reparations for the 41 living Greenwood survivors and their descendants; and 4) give an update on the legal and political efforts to obtain reparations.***