How Black Wall Street was built, and the quest for reparations : Planet Money 100 years ago, Black Wall Street was destroyed. But how was it built? And what does it take to get restitution? | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Black Wall Street

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Black Wall Street

Black Wall Street

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHIEF EGUNWALE AMUSAN: Welcome to the Black Wall Street Tour. My name is Chief Egunwale Amusan. I'm I'm a descendant of a Tulsa massacre survivor. His name is Raymond Beard Sr.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

About a month ago, Chief Amusan was giving a tour around Tulsa in the area that was nicknamed Black Wall Street. It was here that a massacre took place a hundred years ago.

AMUSAN: Where we're located now is - we're at the - woo (ph), going to fly away in a minute.

ARONCZYK: It's an exceptionally windy day, very Oklahoma.

KALALEA, BYLINE: Chief is a big guy, with a shaved head and a slight beard that's turning a bit gray. One of the first things he tells you as you walk around Black Wall Street is that it's not, in fact, a street. It was a 35-block neighborhood known as Greenwood, home to about 11,000 people.

ARONCZYK: Also, Black Wall Street was not like actual Wall Street - no stock exchange, no Goldman Sachs. Black Main Street might have made more sense - a Black community built up around businesses and shops.

KALALEA: The group follows Chief to a huge memorial made of marble.

AMUSAN: I start the tour here because I want you to notice this wall that's in front of us. What you see on that wall is the foundation for a town.

KALALEA: It's a list of businesses - Brothers Pastry (ph), Tip-Top Grocery (ph), Bella Little Cafe, Dreamland Theater.

AMUSAN: All those businesses are listed on that wall, that's just a fraction of the businesses that existed in Greenwood. All right. Any questions? Because this is not a lecture. This is a dialogue.

ARONCZYK: There's this one question from the group that is surprisingly hard to answer. What did Greenwood look like?

AMUSAN: When I close my eyes - that's why I do the Real Black Wall Street Tour, because I want people to be able to imagine what it looked like to step into Greenwood. By the time we're finished, my hope is you'll feel like you walked into a 1921 version of Wakanda and all is vibranium. Like, literally, that's the hope.

ARONCZYK: The hope is that people will understand what this place used to be - an intentional all-Black community. So Chief carries around these 11x17 laminated photos on his tour, and he shows people how beautiful this old world was. You look at the photo, and you see this really nice neighborhood street. It's lined with trees. There are these craftsman-style homes, nice cars.

AMUSAN: See the trolley? And it's going to come down straight down through here.

ARONCZYK: But when you look away from the photo, it is really disorienting because Greenwood today is in the shadow of a highway overpass. So what you actually see are empty bottles and sandbags and garbage, all the stuff that accumulates next to a highway. And you're like, that street in the photo is the same street where I'm standing right now?

KALALEA: There's a reason it's so difficult to imagine what was there. Over two days in 1921, Greenwood was looted and systematically destroyed.

AMUSAN: If you come to north Tulsa today, it looks as if the burning had just happened because there's nothing left.

ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

KALALEA: And I'm KalaLea.

ARONCZYK: KalaLea, you are the host of a new podcast. It's called "Blindspot: Tulsa Burning."

KALALEA: Yeah. It's a six-part series that tells the tragic story of the Tulsa race massacre, what led up to it and what still persists.

ARONCZYK: It is a huge story, and we'll catch you up on the basics first. But KalaLea is here so that together we can hone in on the money part of the story.

KALALEA: Today on the show, Greenwood, Okla. - how it became a center of Black joy and wealth, what was lost in the massacre and the attempts to get some of it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KALALEA: Chief Amusan was born in Tulsa, Okla., back in the 1960s, but he didn't learn about the massacre until he was in his early 20s.

AMUSAN: I got a job two years after I got out of high school. And I was working at this engineering company. And this older gentleman who was - I guess he was like a janitor, but he was like 80 years old - somehow we got on the topic of interracial relationships. And he started telling me about Sarah Page and Dick Rollan,

ARONCZYK: Sarah Page and Dick Rowland. All right. Here is how the old story goes. In 1921, a 19-year-old African American shoe shiner named Dick Rowland allegedly touches a 17-year-old elevator operator named Sarah Page, who was white. But there's always been some speculation that they were seeing each other.

AMUSAN: And he was telling me about it. But it was so unbelievable that I was like, this old man, he's just talking, you know. I'm just going to listen because I respect my elders.

KALALEA: And what kind of things do you recall what he was saying to you, like, that was just so unbelievable?

AMUSAN: Well, it was just the fact that 1921. He was saying that, you know, Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were really close, almost like he was insinuating that they had a relationship in 1921, right? And me understanding Oklahoma the way I understand Oklahoma, I was thinking you're BSing me. Like, I don't even see the possibility of something like that, not in that time period.

ARONCZYK: Whatever did happen in that elevator, that was the inciting incident of the massacre.

KALALEA: Because the next morning, Rowland was arrested and locked up in the courthouse jail. Within hours, a large group of armed white men showed up to the courthouse, threatening to lynch Rowland. And shortly after, a smaller group of Black men, also armed, arrived to defend him.

ARONCZYK: There are many stories of what happened at the courthouse. What we do know is that over the course of the following day, thousands of white people crossed over into Greenwood. They looted homes, killed people and burned the neighborhood to the ground.

AMUSAN: That would be the first time I actually heard anything about it, and that would be 1987.

KALALEA: Back then, Chief had no idea that the massacre had happened. He also didn't know his own grandfather, Raymond Beard Sr., was a survivor. The story of the Tulsa massacre was buried, suppressed.

AMUSAN: The damage was so deep. That's why nobody ever talked about it.

ARONCZYK: Finally, around the late 1990s, Chief's grandfather starts describing what happened to their family. He was just a baby at the time and was being looked after by his eldest siblings in Greenwood.

AMUSAN: They lived at 524 North Greenwood, maybe one block outside of the main business district.

KALALEA: They were using their home as a boarding house, renting out rooms. Plus, his great aunt was running another small business there.

AMUSAN: She ran a laundry service inside that home, so she was running laundry. Like, if you worked for a white family, they had laundry delivered there. And you would work the laundry. And then somebody would pick it up and - like a cleaners, almost.

KALALEA: Based on Chief's research and the few photos that exist, he figures it must have been a pretty nice home. It was so close to the heart of Greenwood.

ARONCZYK: Now, there's some factors that help explain how Greenwood became this center of Black wealth, and it has a lot to do with the establishment of Oklahoma. A little bit of history here. After the Civil War, there's an explosion of all-Black towns in that region. That was the result of people who'd been emancipated from slavery getting the right to settle on land given to Native Americans. Lots of other Black people moved to Oklahoma, too, including this one guy named O.W. Gurley.

KALALEA: Gurley got in on this big land rush and eventually moved to Tulsa. He bought a lot of land, set up some businesses and sent word to other Black folks to follow his lead. And he was really clear about this one thing. He only wanted to sell his land to Black people. This was the birth of Greenwood.

ARONCZYK: Then, in 1907, Oklahoma becomes officially a state. One of the first things the government does - slap down some Jim Crow laws.

KALALEA: And there's this unsettling-but-pretty-widely-held theory about the impact Jim Crow had on Greenwood.

AMUSAN: Greenwood only grew like it did because of Jim Crow. Jim Crow was a stimulus package.

KALALEA: Now, obviously, Jim Crow laws were mad racist and destructive. They were in no way a stimulus package, but they did create a set of circumstances that majorly improved Greenwood's standing as an economic powerhouse. Yes, the neighborhoods were segregated, but economically, white and Black people were still entangled. White people hired domestic workers from Greenwood, dropped off their laundry there, ate in Greenwood's restaurants, used their mechanics.

ARONCZYK: So Black people had multiple ways to make money inside and outside Greenwood, but not very many places to spend it. They couldn't just go anywhere to shop. They couldn't eat at any restaurant. So instead, as Greenwood grew, businesses were built by Black entrepreneurs to serve the growing Black clientele. It was a captive market.

AMUSAN: We said, OK, fine. You don't want any of our money? That's fine. We - it's not like we tried to kick the door in and spend our money because we're doing quite well, right? In fact, you're coming into my community to borrow money. So Jim Crow for us was like, OK, let's keep our money within our own community.

ARONCZYK: And there was a lot of money flowing through Tulsa because around this time, Tulsa keeps finding oil. And the price of a barrel pretty much goes up and up, so Tulsa becomes known as the oil capital of the world.

KALALEA: And while Tulsa is doing very well, so is Greenwood. Black people start building larger homes and buying cars and airplanes. They also start gaining power. Remember Gurley, that guy who bought the land? He gets a job as a sheriff's deputy.

ARONCZYK: But then, between 1920 and 1921, Texas finds more oil, and California finds more oil, and Oklahoma finds more oil. All of this oil floods the market. And the price of a barrel of oil drops by nearly 45%.

AMUSAN: So when the oil started to fall and Black folks started getting political power, then this need for our demise became intensified.

KALALEA: So, yes, there was allegedly the incident in the elevator, but let's call it like it is. White folks just did not like seeing successful Black people, and Greenwood had a lot of them.

ARONCZYK: It took so many different factors to build Greenwood into what became known as Black Wall Street. And it took less than two days for the white mob, with help from the authorities, to burn it to the ground, including the house where Chief's family lived on Greenwood Avenue.

KALALEA: What happened to their house?

AMUSAN: Everything was destroyed. There's nothing. If you look at any pictures. Like, I've got a magnifying glasses just to see a mattress. I just want to see something, a spring. Just - I just need - it's something very unsettling about knowing that you had family who lived on Greenwood, and you just want to be able to say it was right there. And you can't distinguish anything.

KALALEA: Because of the destruction and incomplete records, it's been hard to calculate the value of what was destroyed. But in the years just after the massacre, there were almost 200 lawsuits filed against the city and against insurance companies for losses of about $27 million in today's money. And from all of those claims, only one resident got anything back. The city paid a few thousand dollars to the owner of a pawn shop that was raided for guns and ammunition. That owner was white.

ARONCZYK: There were a number of reasons people couldn't recoup their losses. First off, city didn't take responsibility for what happened. While we now know that Greenwood was a massacre, for years, it was called a riot, implying that the violence was mutual or random. And they blamed the Black population for the destruction.

KALALEA: And the insurance companies, they often had a riot exclusion clause in their policies. So if the insurance company could prove that the fire that destroyed, say, a theater was caused by a riot, they didn't have to pay.

ARONCZYK: So calling what happened a riot wasn't just about spreading around the blame, it also removed financial responsibility. All the other cases and claims were dismissed. It wasn't until 1997, more than 75 years later, that another major attempt was made to seek restitution. An Oklahoma task force was set up to look at what happened and to figure out, OK, does the city owe the people of Greenwood anything, and if so, what?

KALALEA: The task force publishes a report, and it says, yes, the city, the police department, the Oklahoma National Guard, among others, were responsible. There should be reparations. A memorial was built, and a small scholarship was set up, but no money for the survivors or descendants. So they file a lawsuit, and Chief's grandfather was a part of it.

AMUSAN: So my role was really helping my grandparents understand the politics behind it, right? Just making sure they had real clarity about what was being bargained for on their behalf to make sure it matched what they were asking for, right?

ARONCZYK: The ask was pretty straightforward. They wanted an unspecified amount for restitution and repair money that could be used for education and health care for the survivors. There were about 150 survivors at that point, as well as their descendants.

AMUSAN: The state government basically told them we don't use tax dollars to pay for past crimes committed against its citizens, right? They were just like, we just don't do it, and besides that, statute of limitations has run out. That's what the argument was.

KALALEA: So then they tried to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but they wouldn't hear the case either. Again, it was too late. There was a real cost of keeping what happened in Tulsa buried for so long. During these years, from 1997 to 2005, dozens of survivors died, including Chief's grandfather.

AMUSAN: I often think, how do I contain this degree of anger - right? - of resentment, knowing that my grandfather died the same year that the Supreme Court denied them reparations, denied them their day in court, not because they didn't have a valid case, but because the statute of limitations had run out.

ARONCZYK: Chief says his way of dealing is to stay engaged with the past and by continuing to try to get justice for his family. After the break, Chief tries again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Anniversaries are a mixed bag. On one hand, everybody pays attention. It's like we simply cannot resist 25 and its multiples. That last lawsuit, the one that included Chief's grandfather, began at the 75th commemoration. But once that lawsuit petered out, most people outside of Tulsa moved on. There was no new legal action until now, the hundredth anniversary.

KALALEA: Last year, Chief signed on to a new lawsuit seeking restitution. It's got an unusual origin story.

AMUSAN: We have this new lawsuit that is being represented as a nuisance order - a nuisance, right? Because we witnessed Oklahoma sue pharmaceutical companies because of the nuisance that the opioid addiction crisis caused.

ARONCZYK: In 2019, the state of Oklahoma sued a bunch of pharmaceutical companies, and their case against Johnson & Johnson went to trial.

KALALEA: The state basically said, Johnson & Johnson, you guys make opioids. You knew they were addictive. You lied to us. And now we have all these problems from addiction to homelessness to you name it. You are the reason we are paying for everything from drug courts to shelters. You, Johnson & Johnson, you created a public nuisance.

ARONCZYK: Now, sure, public nuisance sounds more like somebody littered rather than wrecking entire communities. But legally, in Oklahoma, this term means something specific. A public nuisance is one that affects, at the same time, an entire community or neighborhood.

KALALEA: It was a rather unconventional thing for Oklahoma to try, but it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Scott (ph), the judge here in Oklahoma has found for the state and against Johnson & Johnson. Declaring that J&J caused a public nuisance and has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million to...

ARONCZYK: There are thousands of these cases against drug manufacturers. This was the first to win at trial.

AMUSAN: Well, when we looked at that lawsuit and its definitions, we said, wait a minute, this sounds like the destruction of Greenwood, like, literally in every form and fashion - the consequences, the - how it affects the families, how it affects your future wealth and ability to get a job or be functional in society. All of those things directly impacted us.

KALALEA: So last fall, a team of lawyers representing the survivors and their descendants filed that new lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and its agencies. The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 was presented legally as a public nuisance.

AMUSAN: Isn't that what our reparations lawsuit in '97 and 2003 was about? Restitution, repair and respect - that's what this lawsuit is about. Restitution, repair and respect.

ARONCZYK: Everyone we spoke with agreed that this is a creative approach. But the official stance of the city is that paying survivors and their descendants would be an unfair tax on today's citizens, people who had nothing to do with what happened.

KALALEA: And the mayor said on the local news that reparations are divisive. Instead, he's focusing on redeveloping property in and around Greenwood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: The mayor says it's a plan to build wealth that was lost and to bring all of Tulsa together.

GT BYNUM: Getting in and trying to make cash payments to people, it divides the community on something that we really need to be united around.

ARONCZYK: So the city is trying to have the lawsuit dismissed.

KALALEA: And here's something I learned while working on this story by talking with historians, lawyers and researchers. Historically, reparation lawsuits for racial violence against Black Americans haven't worked. When reparations have been paid for interned Japanese Americans, for victims of the Rosewood massacre in Florida, they happened through legislation.

CHIEF EGUNWALE AMUSAN

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I welcome everyone to today's hearing on continuing injustice - the centennial of the Tulsa Greenwood race massacre.

ARONCZYK: That is why it's so meaningful that there was a hearing two weeks ago organized by a House subcommittee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Our next witness is Chief Egunwale Amusan.

ARONCZYK: Not quite how Chief's name is pronounced, but still, more than 30 years after he first learned about what happened to his grandfather, there he was giving his testimony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Of massacre descendants. Chief, you're recognized for five minutes.

AMUSAN: Thank you, Mr. Chair and esteemed body. My name is Chief Egunwale Amusan. I'm the grandson of Raymond Beard Sr. and the grandnephew of Matthew and Mary Beard.

KALALEA: Chief made his case that his family fled Tulsa after the massacre, that they were dispersed across the country and lost contact with one another, that they didn't know who was alive or dead, and that he does not want to wait until the 200th anniversary for some form of justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMUSAN: When I look my oldest son in the eyes, I wonder if the name - I wonder if the charred baton of justice will burn in the palms of his hands, or will it be cleansed and cooled in the river of restitution?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, sir. We appreciate your testimony and your work.

(APPLAUSE)

ARONCZYK: A couple of days after the hearing, the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act was introduced. It needs to pass the House and the Senate, so who knows what will happen? There have been so many similar bills to acknowledge lynchings, massacres, slavery that have stalled out before, some for decades.

KALALEA: This fight has gone on for so long that the easiest thing the government could have done - give some money to the survivors - no longer means what it used to. As far as we know, there are only three survivors left.

AMUSAN: So we can stop here. That monument that's placed right there, so...

ARONCZYK: Back on the tour, Chief says he feels like there's this thing, this hope for restitution and that it's really close. But when he goes to grab it, it moves again, just out of reach.

AMUSAN: Because you almost feel like somebody dropped a million dollars in that pond in gold coins and you feel like you've got to go dive into it and scour it until you can find it because it belongs to you. Like, I can't stop looking for this thing. I can't stop looking for justice because it belongs to me.

KALALEA: So for now, he continues to offer up his Real Black Wall Street tour, taking groups of tourists, locals, college kids through the streets where Greenwood once was.

AMUSAN: You ask any questions? All right. We're done. Yeah. Yeah, you're welcome. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KALALEA: If you want to know more about the Tulsa race massacre, you can listen to the six-part series I host, "Blindspot: Tulsa Burning." It's produced by the History Channel and WNYC Studios in collaboration with KOSU and "Focus: Black Oklahoma."

ARONCZYK: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok. Today's show was produced by Dan Girma and mastered by Gilly Moon. PLANET MONEY's supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. This episode was edited by Erin Edwards (ph).

KALALEA: Special thanks to Rachel Hubbard at KOSU, Dreisen Heath at Human Rights Watch and Karlos Hill at the University of Oklahoma.

ARONCZYK: I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

KALALEA: And I'm KalaLea. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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