The History Channel’s Documentary on “Black Wall Street” Didn’t Tell the Full Story
On September 1, 1921, the city of Tulsa’s post-massacre “Fire Ordinance” – a rule that essentially prevented Black Tulsans whose homes and businesses were destroyed by the violence from rebuilding – was officially struck down after litigation led by B.C. Franklin. To honor the centenary of this victory, which ensured a new life for “Black Wall Street,” we present this essay from 1776 Unites scholar John Sibley Butler, which first appeared in The Oklahoma Eagle in July.
As the History Channel’s documentary – “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre” – on the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma ended, my cell phone was blowing up about the fact that the documentary did not finish the story.
Emmit McHenry, who grew up on “Black Wall Street” and is a very successful businessperson, did not understand.
One of my first experiences of the Greenwood legacy was meeting Emmit at Northwestern University. He was an Associate Dean there and he spoke proudly of Tulsa and the education he received at George Washington Carver middle school and “The Booker T. Washington High School.”
Emmit has represented the spirit of his community well, as measured by the fact that he is a founder of Network Solutions (the developer of the first truly interoperability product, Openlink, for machine-to-machine communications across the internet). His company was the global manager for route domain for internet traffic and domain name registration. He has been a fearless entrepreneur, founding and co-founding companies on four continents.
Our paths crossed again in the start-up world of technology entrepreneurship, where he is still active. I have been very active in the eco-system of Austin, Texas and like Emmit, have invested in companies that have been very successful and have been acquired. Like myself, Emmit grew up in a family of entrepreneurs during the heyday of legal segregation.
He called to say that he was disappointed that not more attention was given to the rebuilding of Greenwood after the domestic terror attack. He also noted how an “economic development” plan distorted the foundation of Greenwood’s economic possibilities.
Urban renewal across the country destroyed what generations of Black entrepreneurs and institutional builders constructed.
Jim Goodman and I met when the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce invited me to Tulsa to develop a strategy to re-imagine the section of Tulsa that was called the “Black Wall Street of America.”
Jim’s father, Edward L. Goodwin, purchased The Oklahoma Eagle in 1936 from Theodore Baughman, who stared the newspaper after the massacre by salvaging The Tulsa Star’s press equipment after its offices were destroyed. Jim has been a tireless worker in Greenwood, and his paper published great accounts of the destruction in Tulsa when other papers refused to tell the story.
He has been the historical glue which holds the history of Greenwood together as it tries to combine with the future. He told me he also found the documentary lacking because it did not present how Black Tulsa came booming back after the massacre.
I was invited to Tulsa because of a chapter in my book, Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Book Among Black Americans: A Reconstruction of Race and Economics, featured a case on “Black Wall Street.”
Greenwood blossomed after Oklahoma statehood
Emmit, Jim, and I are guys whom the press would note “grew up in segregated schools.” The more interesting analysis would be that we grew up in homophily during segregation, or attended schools that did great things that would be hard to match today – but good luck pitching that idea.
The History Channel’s treatment told the outstanding story of how Greenwood developed; how Blacks came to Tulsa as slaves of pre-Columbian people who occupied the land that would become America.
At the end of enslavement, facing intense legal exclusion and racism, Blacks responded by creating a community that served their own needs, educated their children, and launched them into professional occupations within and outside of that community.
W.E.B. DuBois called this historical adjustment the “Group Economy,” which was prevalent all over the country. As hostility intensified across the country, Black enterprises were forced to move to a group economy as immigrants from Europe took their place in many northern cities. As noted by M.S. Stuart’s 1940 book An Economic Detour, Blacks were the only group not allowed to place their enterprises in the central business districts of major cities. All other groups, including immigrant Mexicans and Asians, were allowed to participate in the flow of dollars in the business districts of American cities.
Success despite segregation
Despite their functional and stable community, Blacks in Tulsa could not even visit stores in the downtown section. Behind these intense segregation laws lay anxiety about the safety of White females; that their ostensible protection was a motivation for such laws is a fact that runs throughout the expansive literature on the subject.
So, when a young Black male, Dick Rowland, stumbled into a White female elevator operator, she screamed – and the fire was ignited. Rowland was arrested and placed in jail, and rumors of plans for a lynching spread throughout Tulsa.
Men from the Greenwood section, many of whom were WWI veterans, went to the jail to make sure there would be no lynching. Armed to the tee, Whites became incensed and followed them back to the Greenwood District. These Black men put a perimeter around their community and fought the Whites until day light.
When morning arrived, Whites invaded the section and killed many people and burned 36-square blocks of business district to the ground.
What is left out of the History Channel’s presentation is that Blacks moved immediately to rebuild Greenwood, the community that produced Emmit McHenry, Jim Goodwin, and many other successful people.
The noted historian and Oklahoma native John Hope Franklin once told me that his father, B.C. Franklin, was the lawyer who encouraged survivors to rebuild after the massacre, a fact that was presented on the History Channel. This was to keep the land from being seized by White business interests in Tulsa.
As I noted in my book Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics:
“By 1923, the Greenwood business district, mostly because of self-help and the pooling of money for capitalization of business enterprises, was on its way to becoming more prosperous than the days before the massacre. By 1925, the ingenuity of Tulsa’s Blacks was recognized when the annual convention of the Negro Business League was held in Greenwood. By 1938, the ‘Black Wall Street’ had been completely rebuilt, along with important community organizations.”
By 1942, the community boasted over 242 entrepreneurial firms and over 94 professional firms.
The assault by Whites in 1921 certainly destroyed an entire business district, but it did not destroy the entrepreneurial spirit of its residents, who built a bigger and better “Black Wall Street.”
Destruction brought on by “urban renewal”
When I arrived in Greenwood for a strategy session in the 1990s, the decay that stated in the late 1950s and early 1960s was almost complete. White violence had killed the structures of the original Greenwood in 1921, but as Emmit has noted, urban renewal killed the new, flourishing “Black Wall Street” of the 1930s and 40s.
Urban renewal had an impact on successful Black business enclaves throughout America, as interstate highway construction completely destroyed the entrepreneurial sectors of many communities.
This, combined with the Civil Rights Movement, which had no strategy for economics for poor people – and thus did not understand the importance of carrying on the self-help tradition – spelled economic disaster.
The strategy of Booker T. Washington’s Negro Business League was completely replaced by the strategy of protest. The Civil Rights Movement worked well mostly for non-poor people, having a positive impact on economically secure blacks that continues today.
Indeed, the history of Black success in America was buried as the research literature shifted its focus from what Blacks as a group could accomplish to what they could not accomplish. In the 1990s, the spirit of entrepreneurship and self-help among Black communities was replaced with an emphasis on White racism rather that Black determination.
A future awaits
The History Channel’s presentation left out the spirit of Tulsa’s Blacks and how they rebuilt Greenwood against overwhelming odds. But it’s the spirit that brought Greenwood back that is the model for poor Black communities in America.
In order to prepare Blacks not raised in this tradition for the future, land within cities needs to be purchased with a national real estate trust put together by Black Americans, with a series of private schools that teach the traditions of community and self-help that built places like Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.”
We have to imagine private Black colleges and universities on the South Side of Chicago and the East Side of Cleveland. Then, future generations can be launched to opportunities in the larger society, where the opportunity structure is very different than it was in the 1920s.
The Woodson Center has been utilizing history as a model for decades. In 1991, long before “Black Wall Street” returned to national memory, Bob Woodson and I published an article entitled “The Greenwood Section of Tulsa: The Legacy of Self-Help,” published in Agenda: The Alternative Journal of Critical Issues.
Today, the Woodson Center and its 1776 Unites initiative present often-ignored material on about the full history of Greenwood and Tulsa, the hometown of Emmit McHenry and Jim Goodwin, as part of its curriculum unit on the 1921 Race Massacre and its aftermath.
We must augment The History Channel’s version of the Greenwood story to truly understand the legacy of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.”
John Sibley Butler is Professor of Management and Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin where he holds the J. Marion West Chair in Constructive Capitalism. Emmit McHenry is a high-tech entrepreneur who has created and sold many companies. Jim Goodwin is the owner of The Oklahoma Eagle, the oldest black newspaper in Oklahoma, and has been dedicated to the historic Greenwood District, or “Black Wall Street,” all of his life.
A version of this article, with some differences, appeared on July 2, 2021 in The Oklahoma Eagle.