How Tulsa Race Massacre Shaped Today's Most Successful Black CEOs Ariel Investments CEO John Rogers, TIAA CEO Thasunda Duckett, and former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault reflect on what the Tulsa events a century ago has meant to them.

How Tulsa Race Massacre Shaped Today's Most Successful Black CEOs

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One hundred years ago, a white mob destroyed the area known as Black Wall Street. This was the Tulsa race massacre that killed as many as 300 people. And for decades, the scale of that violent attack on Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood wasn't widely known. But as NPR's David Gura reports, that moment in history weighs heavily on some of today's highest-profile Black executives.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: J.B. Stradford was a pillar of Black Wall Street. He fought for civil rights. He built a luxury hotel in Tulsa, among several other businesses. And according to his great-grandson, the investor John Rogers, Stradford made a fortune.

JOHN ROGERS: Over time, we think it would have compounded to over $100 million. We think it would have been real, serious wealth that J.B. Stradford would have been able to create and then to be able to share with his descendants as the years went on.

GURA: At the time, Tulsa was awash with oil money, and Greenwood was a place of prosperity and possibility.

ROGERS: They were all in it together. They gained an enormous amount of confidence of, you know, what they could do as business leaders and the kind of educational opportunities they would be able to give to their kids and - you know, build multi-generational wealth was really the dream.

GURA: Black Wall Street was a commercial center, vibrant with movie theaters and restaurants and barbershops. Every profession was represented there, Rogers says. There were doctors and lawyers, and something that made it special was the money stayed in that community. Everyone did business with each other. One hundred years ago, all that was wiped out.

KEN CHENAULT: This was absolutely brutal what happened.

GURA: Ken Chenault was one of the first Black CEOs to run a Fortune 500 company. He led American Express from 2001 to 2018. And Chenault first heard about what happened in Tulsa when he was a teenager. He says it was shocking.

CHENAULT: I think what's very important to understand is the fear that Blacks had that almost anything they had was fragile because it could be taken away from them.

GURA: Chenault says he marvels at what Greenwood's residents managed to build in Tulsa, despite the prejudice and racism they endured, despite extreme odds. And during his long career in business, Chenault has thought about the lives lost and the consequences of so many businesses ruined and wealth destroyed.

CHENAULT: What I certainly would have liked to have seen happen - and I certainly believed it would - was that the number of Blacks as CEOs would have increased.

GURA: In fact, that number is getting smaller. When Ken Frazier steps down from Merck next month, there will be four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. And one of them is Thasunda Brown Duckett. She's the CEO of TIAA, a financial services firm that manages more than a trillion dollars in assets. The Tulsa massacre was not something she learned about in school, but now it's something she thinks about every day. There's a picture of Black Wall Street hanging on the wall of her office.

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Because I represent Black Wall Street going forward and the future and the promise of what was denied a hundred years ago.

GURA: Duckett is one of only two Black women running Fortune 500 companies. And she says what happened in Tulsa is part of the reason why there aren't more executives who look like her who are doing what she's doing in corporate America.

BROWN DUCKETT: You know, we talk a lot about structural and systemic racism. And I think what the Tulsa massacre shows us - it gives a real face and a narrative to what that really means.

GURA: Duckett says the damage has compounded over the last 100 years. Insurers denied survivors' claims and so did the government, and that's contributed to an erosion of trust in the financial system. Well, that's something she's trying to restore, and so is John Rogers, J.B. Stradford's great-grandson, who points to signs of progress. Today there are more Black board members at public companies, for instance, but there hasn't been anything like that sense of community in Greenwood.

ROGERS: What we're still missing is the opportunity to build businesses the way that we had in Tulsa a hundred years ago.

GURA: When Black Wall Street burned, Stradford couldn't save his business. He was taken into custody and charged with rioting. But he escaped, first to Kansas, then to Illinois.

ROGERS: He never was able to replicate the success that he had had in Tulsa.

GURA: Everything Stradford worked for disappeared in one day. That's driven Rogers as he's built his business, one of the largest Black-owned financial firms in the country.

David Gura, NPR News.

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