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Hidden in Plain Sight: The Untold Story of Black Wall Street

Mar 02, 2024 10:00AM ● By Anand Subramanian


In the annals of American history, amidst tales of perseverance and progress, a dark chapter lingers; a story of resilience and prosperity is cruelly extinguished. It is the story of Black Wall Street, a beacon of African American economic self-determination that flourished in the early 20th century, only to be brutally destroyed in a spasm of racial violence. This blog delves into the legacy of Black Wall Street, uncovering its remarkable origins, tragic demise, and enduring significance in the American narrative.

The Rise of Greenwood

In the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the turn of the 20th century, an extraordinary community was taking root. Founded by O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American landowner, Greenwood quickly emerged as a haven for Black entrepreneurship and ambition in an era of crushing segregation. Oklahoma, though not accessible from the oppressive Jim Crow laws, offered a degree of autonomy that many African Americans sought in the wake of Reconstruction.

Greenwood's success was phenomenal. Along its bustling main street known as Greenwood Avenue, Black-owned businesses of all kinds thrived. There were luxury hotels, restaurants, theaters, doctors' offices, law practices, grocery stores, and more. Skilled professionals and tradespeople found ample opportunity within this self-contained economy, catering to the needs of a growing, affluent Black population. The level of development even earned Greenwood the moniker often shortened to "Black Wall Street."

The philosophy underpinning Greenwood was one of racial uplift and collective betterment. Residents were committed to creating a prosperous and independent community where Black Americans could live with dignity and reach their full potential outside the confines of white supremacy. This emphasis on self-reliance resonated deeply among African Americans nationwide, transforming Greenwood into a symbol of hope and possibility.

A Community Built on Excellence

Greenwood was notable for its economic dynamism and its emphasis on education, culture, and social welfare. Renowned institutions like Booker T. Washington High School produced generations of Black leaders and intellectuals. Churches formed the cornerstones of civic life, providing spiritual guidance and social support networks.

The community even published its newspapers, such as the Tulsa Star and Oklahoma Sun, which gave voice to Black perspectives and chronicled the achievements of Greenwood residents. The result was a vibrant and multifaceted society where Black Americans could achieve material success and cultivate their intellectual, artistic, and spiritual lives.


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A Dream Shattered: The Tulsa Race Massacre

The remarkable story of Black Wall Street reached its cataclysmic end in 1921. Over two horrific days – May 31st and June 1st – a white mob, fueled by racial hatred and resentment, descended upon Greenwood. They looted, burned, and mercilessly murdered Black residents. The once thriving district was reduced to smoldering ruins, its dreams of a self-determined future left in ashes.

The Tulsa Race Massacre was not an isolated incident but rather a chilling manifestation of the pervasive racial violence that plagued the United States in the early 20th century. Incited by false allegations and fueled by deep-seated prejudice, the massacre exposed the fragility of Black progress within the confines of a profoundly racist society.

The official death toll for the Tulsa Race Massacre has long been contested, but modern scholarship suggests that as many as 300 Black lives were lost. Countless others were injured, displaced, and traumatized. 


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Suppression and a Legacy Endures

In the aftermath of the massacre, a conspiracy of silence descended upon Tulsa. White authorities worked to suppress the accurate scale of the destruction, and many Black survivors, fearing further reprisals, chose to remain silent about their experiences. The Tulsa Race Massacre was effectively erased from Oklahoma's official history for decades, rendering it a hidden tragedy known predominantly within Black communities.

Yet, the spirit of Black Wall Street could not be wholly extinguished. Despite the overwhelming loss and trauma, survivors and their descendants displayed unwavering determination. Slowly but surely, they began the arduous process of rebuilding their lives and their community. Though Greenwood would never regain its former scale or prominence, the legacy of Black resilience and self-sufficiency lived on.

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 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

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