Rebuilding Black Wall Street
It is time for us to rebuild Black Wall Street.
[TW: This essay contains discussion of anti-Black violences, including assault and murder]
This summer marks ninety seven years since Black Wall Street was destroyed. Greenwood was a community in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma, established and governed by the Black people who lived there. With a host of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and hard workers, nearly 15,000 African Americans lived and worked in this prosperous and booming business town.
Visceral racism kept the races segregated, at the behest of white Tulsans, due to their fear and hatred of Blackness. But when the prosperity of Greenwood began to overshadow the economy and amenities of its neighboring white communities, that fear and hatred manifested in another way, in an act of terrorism.
“Those of the whites who seek to maintain the old white group control naturally do not relish seeing Negroes emancipating themselves from the old system.” – Walter White, “The Eruption of Tulsa”
It was a white lie that sparked the flame. A Black boy accidentally stepped on a white girl’s foot, and she in turn accused him of criminal assault. He, of course, was quickly detained, and when a group of men from Greenwood came to the jail to ensure that a white mob didn’t drag out the boy to hang him, it was white aggression that pushed the tension between them all to a tipping point.
It was around 5 AM the next morning when more than 10,000 white men descended upon Greenwood in a pointed attack. Homes were pillaged and set on fire. Dynamite was used to bomb the city, while some firepower was dropped from planes used to spy on the movements of the scared Black citizens trying to flee. Some estimations put the death toll as high as 300 citizens of Greenwood murdered that morning, some shot or bludgeoned, others incinerated along with their homes.
“One story was told to me by an eye-witness of five colored men trapped in a burning house. Four burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames.”
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Bodies were buried in mass, unmarked graves, many of them burned beyond recognition. It was once rumored that two truck loads of corpses were thrown into the Arkansas River, but there is no official confirmation of this story. Though, it would not be surprising if it were true.
Not a single person has ever been convicted for these crimes. Just as acts of white terrorism are not viewed or named as such by those who control the dominant narrative, this act of mass murder, arson, and displacement of thousands of innocent Black people was not seen as a crime at all by those who had the power to treat it as such.
The ugliness of white violence continues to draw breath even now. It shows itself in different ways, and often just as bloody. The slaughtering of the Charleston Nine. The display of white nationalism by the Alt-right and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, as they marched towards predominantly Black neighborhoods. It’s alive in gentrification and in white people calling the cops to use them as a weapon against Black people in their presence, in white spaces where they aren’t supposed to be. These are all actions taken directly against Black mobility and Black life. White terrorism is a tool of white supremacy that has been used since the first instance of white colonization and indigenous genocide.
In the face of all this, it is time for us to rebuild Black Wall Street. Past time, in fact. By mobilizing with organizations invested in combating white supremacy and the policies that help the dominant class hoard their wealth. The racial wealth gap–a direct consequence of chattel slavery, antebellum inequities, Jim Crow laws, and Black Codes, among other things–continues to grow even now. Over the past thirty years, the wealth of Black and Latinx families has diminished while that of white families has continually increased. If this trend continues, Black and Latinx families will have no economic wealth at all in another thirty years, even though people of color will make up the majority of the working class by 2032 and white Americans are projected to become the racial minority by 2043.
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PolicyLink is a national research and action institute established to push back against this racial wealth and equity gap. Founded by the amazing and insightful Angela Glover Blackwell in 1999, the organization has gone on to create tangible change in communities of color through its focus on racial and economic equity.
Their mission statement reads:
“Equity aims to equip everyone, especially those who have been left behind, with the resources that allow them to contribute and prosper. It is a pragmatic approach to solve the nation’s greatest problems and sources of tension: economic inequality and racial exclusion. Equity addresses race forthrightly and productively, but it is not about benefiting one group at the expense of another. When smart, sustainable strategies are tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable communities, opportunities improve for all.”
To achieve this work, the organization advocates for policy changes to help people of color achieve and maintain economic security and build homes in healthy communities, engaging with a long list of partnerships in various cities, including suburbs, rural communities, and tribal lands. The ways that PolicyLink has already been able to make an impact and create communities of opportunity include programming to ensure better educational outcomes for thousands of children, directly provided over $1 billion in resources to low-income families of color, supporting and helping to enact policies to ensure fair housing, and hosting annual Equity Summits to foster a “deep reservoir of intellectual, strategic, and innovative thought for feeding and sustaining the equity movement.” We need spaces and organizations like PolicyLink in this fight with us, helping us to rebuild and actively combat the systems that have served only to widen the racial wealth gap.
It’s time to rebuild Black Wall Street by mobilizing together. Black Wall Streets, in fact–for there have been more than Greenwood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which ended in bloodshed. The others–like Boley, Oklahoma, The Hayti Community of Durham, North Carolina, Jackson Ward of Richmond, Virginia, The Fourth Avenue District of Birmingham, Alabama–all saw their thriving Black business economy and prosperity decline either due to the white gentrifiers or The Great Depression and World War II.
Each of these communities was able to thrive and maintain economic prosperity for its Black residents, and this is something that we can achieve again if we pool our resources and work with organizations that are truly invested in us and creating economic equity for our communities.
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