With the completion of ONEOK FIELD, the historic Greenwood District is poised to
play a major role in the revitalization of downtown Tulsa. As one of the
most successful and wealthiest African American communities in the United States
during the early 20th Century, it was popularly known as America's
"Black Wall Street" until the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
Historic Greenwood - Some highs and lows
The Greenwood District began to emerge in the early 1900s, a time of rigid
segregation. That segregation, ironically, gave rise to Tulsa’s nationally
renowned black entrepreneurial center. As families arrived and homes sprang up
in the Greenwood District, the need for retail and service businesses, schools,
and entertainment became apparent, as blacks were not allowed to shop in white
districts. A class of African American entrepreneurs rose to the occasion,
creating a vibrant, vital, self-contained economy that would become known as
Black Wall Street, and it was the talk of the nation.
In those days, the Greenwood District published two newspapers, the Tulsa Star
and the Oklahoma Sun, which covered not only Tulsa, but also state and national
news. At that time, Greenwood was a true faith based community and housed more
churches than all of Tulsa’s white community. The buildings on Greenwood Avenue
housed the offices of almost all of Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors, doctors,
and other professionals. At the time of the riot, there were fifteen well-known
African American physicians in the area, one of whom was considered the “most
able Negro surgeon in America” by one of the Mayo brothers.
All Hell Breaks Loose
In the spring of 1921 underlying social and economic tension in Tulsa
sparked the worst race riot in American history. The number of lives lost is
still actively debated, but
one thing is known, property damage ran into the millions of dollars. The
Greenwood District, a thirty-five-square-block-area that comprised the
city's entire African American community, lay in complete ruins. Over
600 successful businesses were lost. Among them were 21 churches, 21
restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a
bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half-dozen private
airplanes and even a bus system.
The Rebuilding Begins
Tulsa's African American community ultimately turned tragedy into triumph. They
rebuilt the ravaged Greenwood District, which by 1942 boasted 242 black-owned
and black-operated business establishments. Mobilizing its historical
resources, the Greenwood District was a hotbed of jazz and blues and it thrived
through the 1960’s but ultimately fell prey to an economic and population drain
fueled by what now is thought to be an ill-conceived urban renewal effort, in
which much of the area was leveled to make way for a highway loop around Tulsa’s
central business district.
So, a combination of factors led to the decline of the Greenwood District,
ironically including integration or de-segregation as the African American
community for the first time, had options on where to shop. As the customer base
splintered, few businesses remained by the end of the twentieth century. The
area saw little economic activity during the 70’s and 80’s until revitalization
and preservation efforts began in earnest in the 1990’s and 2,000’s.
Several blocks of the old neighborhood around the intersection of Greenwood Ave.
and Archer St. were saved from demolition and have been restored, forming part
of what is now called the Greenwood Historical District.
The Greenwood District - A vision for the future
Just as a combination of factors contributed to its decline, a combination of
economic development efforts will help restore the Greenwood District to its
historical prominence. The “baby-steps” of the revitalization and preservation
efforts of the last 10 years have resulted in tourism initiatives and
John Hope Franklin Center
for Reconciliation Park
and the Greenwood Cultural Center
honor the Tulsa Race Riot, although the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce plans a
larger museum to be built, hopefully with involvement from the national parks
Greenwood Cultural Center dedicated on October 22, 1995 was created as a
tribute to Greenwood’s history and as a symbol of hope for the community’s
future. The center has a museum, an African American art gallery, and a large
Cultural Center is a multipurpose educational, arts, and humanities complex
promoting history, culture, and positive race relations and it anchors the
modern-day Greenwood District.
Future is NOW for The Greenwood District
In 2008, the City of Tulsa announced that it sought to move the city's minor
league baseball team, the Tulsa Drillers, to a new stadium to be constructed in
the Greenwood District. The proposed development included plans for an expanded
and entertainment district. The stadium is now complete and the anticipated
surrounding development is certain to boost the continued redevelopment of The
Greenwood District as a destination.
Chamber of Commerce has been and will likely continue to play a key role
in the revitalization of the area. The GCC
public/private partners, as well as, community organizations to turn the dream
of a mixed-use community into reality. According to their website, the GCC “has
been building bridges, mending fences and actively involving citizens throughout
the city in an ongoing effort to improve the quality of life and empower the
minority residents within our city.”
While it’s not the geographical center of north Tulsa, The Greenwood Historical
District is in many ways the cultural and symbolic heart of the African American
Community. The continued resurrection of this icon will benefit not only all
Tulsans, but also many beyond our borders.