Racial prejudice, lynchings and unsubstantiated murders were still the reality of Black men, women and children in the early 1900s, before then, and since then. 99 years later, one can still question if much has changed, especially because less than a week ago, George Floyd, an unarmed, non-resisting Black man begging for his mother and screaming “I can’t breathe,” was murdered, by white men …in broad daylight.
In 1919, Black soldiers returned from World War I, expecting racial progress, after sacrificing their lives for their country. This was not the case. Black people were deemed “good enough” to defend the frontline of a war but were apparently not good enough to be treated with equality…even in their own communities!
Greenwood at a glance
In 1905, African Americans acquired over 40-acres of land in Tulsa, Oklahoma and it became the Greenwood District. By the 1920s, this settlement of Black people in this community, earned the nickname of “Black Wall Street,” because the community was a visual of Black excellence. Greenwood boasted more than 300 black owned businesses, which included 30 restaurants, 45 grocery and meat markets, 21 restaurants, 21 churches, 2 theaters, banks, barbershops, real estate agents, dry cleaners, milliners, dental offices, hotels, doctor offices, pharmacists a hospital, private airplanes and even its own school system. Historians marvel at how the dollar would stay within “Greenwood” between 36 to 100 times, and would remain within the district over a year before it even left the community. To this day, this type of circulation has not been replicated.
This African American community was thriving. And because it was thriving, it was destroyed. In 2016, to Mechelle Brown, director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center, shared that white people in Tulsa, Oklahoma made remarks like ” ‘How dare these negroes have a grand piano in their house and I don’t have a piano in my house’.”
Page and Rowland
Tensions were rising and they peaked the day a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page who worked as an elevator operator claimed that 19-year-old Black Dick Rowland, assaulted her. Following this, although Rowland used the elevator just about every day, he ran.
Historical accounts of the incidents reflect 2 stories: the first being the aforementioned, the second claiming: Rowland stumbled as he was leaving the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm as he was leaving, and as she screamed, an onlooker went to authorities.
Both accounts report that Page did not press charges, but unsurprisingly, by the end of the day, the incident morphed into “Page was raped.” Rowland was later arrested. At the courthouse where Rowland was being held, Black and white men met, shots were fired, and the worst race massacre in history began.
In less than 24 hours, 35 city square blocks were burned to ash and more than 1,200 houses were demolished. Historians recount that African American bodies lined the streets. 300 people died and thousands more were injured.
This is not a story that is taught in school or even widely included in history books. Even less known, is the fact that with 365 days following the deadliest race riot in history, by 1922, Greenwood made great strides to reestablish itself, returning more than 80 businesses, that later thrived even through the Great Depression. The area became well known for jazz ans music.
Today, oppression may look different, but it still exists, and this is one of the reasons why the world is protesting and rioting and evening looting.
Black people are tired. We are hurt. We are in pain. Pain does not always make sense, and this is not an excuse or justification for everything transpiring present day, rather, insight. We demand justice for George Floyd, and we demand change in the treatment of African American people, especially Black men.
If our ancestors were back up and running, in the early 1900s, after being burned to ash, we are more than capable!