The Destruction of Black Wall Street

A Beginner’s Guide by Devin Guilbeau

The fact that an atrocity this vast and outrageous isn’t common knowledge is shameful. 

Not even during Black History Month do schools teach about the fires that burned down 35 blocks of an old thriving town near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Teachers have never had to educate students about the millions of dollars in property damage and the lack of compensation that came with it. Students have never heard of the hundreds of lives that were lost and the thousands more that were ruined. They could never begin to explain the significance of The Destruction of Black Wall Street, officially known as The Tulsa Race Riots. Such a glaring blind spot in the history of our country necessitates action: the urgency of composing a very basic guide to Black Wall Street in Oklahoma.

Black Wall Street Image Credit: NBCDFW

Humble beginnings:

African Americans were mostly servants and up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, according to historian Alison E. Adams and her colleagues in their paper “The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa’s 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth.” However, that all changed in 1905, when African Americans had finally acquired their own strip of land in the form of Greenwood (Adams 793). The idea of achieving prosperity after a massive racial migration was simple: “Let us make employment for our own,” said AJ Smiterman, editor of the African American Tulsa Star newspaper, in a 1918 issue, “Keep as much of the wealth as possible within the race. The future will take care of itself” (Adams 792). 

And the gamble paid off more than they could’ve predicted. 

The strip included barbershops, schools, doctors’ offices, real estate agencies, two newspaper businesses (one being the previously mentioned Tulsa Star); a food emporium, “Welcome Grocery”; the iconic “Dreamland Theatre” (Grubb), the first African American owned theatre in Tulsa; a few high-rated hotels, including the three-story, 65-room Stratford Hotel (Gara), the largest African American owned hotel in the nation; and many more places of business, as well as the residential areas, owned and rental (Adams 792-793).

For once, African Americans were able to thrive and rapidly grow in their own community. In 1907, the community started with 1 barber, 1 lawyer, 2 physicians/surgeons, no carpenters, contractors, builders, or painters. In 1920, the community grew to have 36 barbers, 8 lawyers, 19 physicians/surgeons, and 48 listed house workers (US Bureau of Census 1920). According to the 1921 city directory, Greenwood contained 191 businesses (Horner 179). It’s calculated that every dollar circled the economy 30 times as business thrived (Gara). Greenwood was a haven for Black people. 

Nearly everyone who lived in Greenwood was economically sound, living comfortably in the middle or upper class. Jimmie Lilly Franklin describes her childhood residence as “a large home with four bedrooms, one bath, living room… which had a Kimball piano, two sofas, two upholsters, a settee, and… full of oak furniture” (Gates). The Franklins had what was considered an average home in Greenwood (Adams 794). The people of Greenwood achieved a high level of wealth in just 13 years. The community was expected to continue to grow and become more prosperous.

The fact that the rapid success of Greenwood hasn’t been taught to every generation is a failure of U.S. history curricula for what it conceals—in both positive and negative contexts. Providing students of African American history with an image of independent, successful, and relatively affluent people of color in an era when Black self-determination was mercilessly impeded by the Jim Crow system is an incontrovertible positive piece of information. At the same time, ignoring the campaign of domestic terror enacted against this community adds insult to injury. This historical omission is hardly accidental, since this community was created solely by people who were seen as less than humans by far too many of their fellow neighbors. 

On May 31, 1921, the economy they built from the ground up came crashing back down again, literally (Messer 1217). 

Same old story:

An assault claim was the beginning of the horrific end to an era (Messer 1217). We’ve all heard this story before: a White woman claims a young Black man raped her. This was the White version of what happened and what was considered the truth for a long time (Browne-Marshall 405). Whether the claim is true or not is still unknown. The facts are that the Black man, Dick Rowland, got into an elevator with an operator, Sarah Page, moved one floor, the girl screams, the man runs out, and the only witness to what happened, a clerk, calls the police to say the man tried to assault her, and the events inside the elevator are only left to speculation (Ellsworth 57). However, knowing all the facts and finding any truth to the claims did not seem to matter for the neighboring White people. Speculations and arguments spread like wildfire when a local newspaper featured the story in its headline, which caused White people to grow angry and vengeful at the atrocity committed against Sara Page. Their outrage sparked rumors of a possible attempt to lynch a Black resident of Tulsa (Messer 1217). This led to a full-blown standoff at the courthouse, where Dick Rowland was arrested between the protectors and the mob, the doubters versus the believers—those who knew he was innocent versus those who knew he was guilty (Messer 1217). The residents of Black Wall Street versus the neighbors. The tension that built up between the two sides was incredible, and as close to a second Civil War as we would get until the Rodney King riots in 1992. One single heated confrontation between the two sides transpired before the inevitable took place. 

A shot was fired:

A Photograph of the Destruction Image Credit: The Oklahoman

Mass hysteria started, skirmishes ensued, chaos reigned. The African American crowd was forced to retreat, while the White crowd stole guns and ammunition and were backed by the local police, who armed and deputized all the White men that came (Capeci 689). The following battle was as one-sided as any could possibly get: Mostly unarmed African American residents versus White men armed with weapons fighting alongside the local police department, with deputized mob members as well as support from the National Guard, and planes that dropped bombs on large buildings like the church in the picture below (Capeci 689; Adams 800). 

Mount Zion Church Image Credit: Hollie Teague via ResearchGate

Many watched as their homes, their businesses, their community, their world, burned to the ground. All 35 city blocks were completely and utterly destroyed (Capeci 689). Over 1,000 residences were burned, another 400 were looted (Brooks 123). Over $4 million in property damage resulted, which would be worth $150 million in 2018 (Brooks 123; Adams 807). The death toll is unknown; however, it is estimated to be anywhere from the confirmed 39 to approximately 300 (Ellsworth 114; Brooks 123). Those who weren’t lost to the fires were arrested and placed in detention camps, where they were forced to witness everything they worked so hard for crumble before their very eyes (Messer 1217). The realization should set in right about now, that such a civilization—its exponential growth, the fight to preserve it, and the wanton destruction taken to dismantle it—is more interesting than many facts you have had burned in your brain from all four years of high school history classes. And yet, for the average reader, there is no prior knowledge to any of this. An event such as this should not go unheard of.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t stop there. Lawyers offered to help African Americans who were arrested during the riots sue for compensation (Adams 811). They were also met with strong resistance from the White people outside the community to rebuild (Adams 811). 193 lawsuits were filed, claiming over $1.8 million. Insurance companies dodged as many as they possibly could in part to a “riot clause” included in their policies (Gill 1946; O’Dell 145). The only case that won was when a White man got compensation for the guns taken from his shop (O’Dell 145). It didn’t take long before many of the professionals, builders, and entrepreneurs took charge and started to rebuild the once great Black Wall Street. Even after 18 painstakingly long months of restoring and legal battles, Black Wall Street was never quite the same. The Black Wall Street of Tulsa Oklahoma in its prime was no more. 

What’s left to learn:

It has been over 100 years since the Destruction of Black Wall Street. An entire century, and the people and families of the former residents of Greenwood have yet to receive any type of compensation for having their homes and property burned to the ground by a deputized mob, the local police, The National Guard, law enforcement, and members of the government (Browne-Marshall 406). The police failed to help and protect their citizens and instead turned on them in their time of need, and there isn’t even so much as a paragraph in a high school history book to show for it. The last survivor, a black woman named Olivia Hooker, passed away at 103 years old in November of 2018, and neither she, nor her family, received a single penny for the destruction bestowed upon them (Press). 

Olivia Hooker
Image Credit: New York Times

There are many other similar atrocities that occurred in case this wasn’t enough to make into its own history curriculum; many other “Black Wall Streets” sprouted and destroyed around the country. A few examples would include communities in Chicago, St. Louis, Knoxville, Rosewood Florida, even Washington D.C. (Adams 812-813). In the case of St. Louis, 200 homes were burned to the ground on July 2, 1917, nearly 4 years prior to the events of Greenwood (Adams 813). With the inclusion of the lynchings that happened during and after the riot, there were a confirmed 50 people murdered, with many more unexplained disappearances (Adams 813). Out of all the events listed, the only place to get some sort of compensation was Rosewood, Florida, and the victims of the event of Rosewood wouldn’t see that compensation until nearly 70 years later, when most of the victims had already passed away (Adams 813-814). There’s so much to learn about such a historically hated and oppressed group of people. There’s so much history that’s been pushed under the rug and should be acknowledged and included in the teaching of the next generation of students, so they know the real full history of our country, and not just the “good” parts we want them to hear. 

Even if the history of Black Wall Street was the only event covered in the curriculum, there is more than enough information in this one event to teach something new about the tragedy for all four years of high school. There might be a section that studies the attack pattern of the White mob on the city, detailed in the Oklahoma directory maps (Ellsworth). Why not teach how this event might have affected the economy if it were still running today, or even how the Tulsa Race Riots has impacted the wealth gap (Gara)? Even going into how many laws were broken or bypassed or dodged or loopholed to make sure no one, outside of the one White gun shop owner, got compensation for the destruction of their homes and businesses (O’Dell 145). The depth of this event, the number of details that people learn about events like World Wars I & II, from the types and models of planes used in the attack, to the likelihood that such an attack like that would work should certain specific pieces of it be missing. And yet, most people didn’t even know the name of this event until now. 

So, historians, professors, teachers, school boards, everyone involved in the school curriculum for high school students, please explain for the rest of the class, after learning about just the tip of the post-civil war iceberg of US History and American racism, why is this Black Wall Street event not common knowledge? Why are we, as a nation, allowing something as important to our history or as symbolic as the Tulsa Race Riots to be brushed away and act like it never happened? When will we be able to learn about Black History that isn’t the same “stand down and be peaceful” lesson from MLK Jr.? Why is this side of history only taught during the same 28 days of the year? Why are we not teaching about the Destruction of Black Wall Street to help prevent other heinous acts of racial violence, false rape claims, shooting, choking, and killing unarmed minorities in the streets? Why are we supposed to Celebrate the American Revolution, Remember the Alamo, and Never Forget 9/11, but Black history is to be wiped from our minds altogether? Why is Greenwood, Oklahoma not used as an uplifting message to all students, who have experienced oppression and hatred in their own communities, that they, despite the hardship, can do anything they put their mind to and can be just as successful as many of these places have been in days past before their tragic ends? What else of Black Wall Street has been hidden from the public for over a century? What else has US History concealed about the experience of Black Americans? 

Works Cited 

Adams, A. E., Messer, C. M., & Shriver, T. E., “The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa’s 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 77(3-4), 789-819. (2018). doi:

Associated Press. “Olivia Hooker, One of the Last Survivors of 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Dies at 103.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 24 Nov. 2018, 651 

Brooks, Robert and Allen H. Witten (1982). “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (2001). “The Investigation of Potential Mass Grave Locations for the Tulsa Race Riot.” In Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Eds. Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, pp. 123–132. Tulsa, OK: Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. 

Browne-Marshall, G. (2005). Alfred L. Brophy, “Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 – Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation (Oxford University Press)”, Crime, Law and Social Change, 42(4-5), 405-407. (2004). doi: 

Capeci, Dominic J., Jr. “Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation.” The Journal of American History, 90(2), 689-690. (2003). sa-riot-1921-race/docview/224901906/se-2?accountid=10730 

Ellsworth, Scott. (1982). “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (2001).

—.“The Tulsa Race Riot.” In Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Eds. Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, pp. 37–101. Tulsa, OK: Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. 

Gates, Eddie Faye. (1997). They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa. Austin: Eakin Press. 

Gara, Antoine. “The Baron of Black Wall Street.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 May 2021, 4f32176

Gill, Loren. “The Tulsa Race Riot.” M.A. Thesis. University of Tulsa. (1946). 

Grubb, L. Dreamland Theatre. (2005). 

Horner, Maxine. (1982). “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (2001). “Epilogue.” In Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Eds. Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, pp. 175–190. Tulsa, OK: Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. 

Messer, Chris M. “The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921: Toward An Integrative Theory Of Collective Violence.” Journal of Social History, vol. 44, no. 4, pp. 1217–1232. 2011. JSTOR, 

O’Dell, Larry (1982). “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (2001). “Riot Property Loss.” In Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Eds. Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, pp. 143–152. Tulsa, OK: Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

U.S. Bureau of Census. Decennial Census. Washington, DC: U.S Government Printing Office. (1920). 

Author Interview – Devin Guilbeau

Q: Why did you choose to write about your particular topic for the project?

A: I’ve wanted to write this since my sophomore year of high school. I was so sick and tired of hearing the same rehearsed lessons on Black History Month and only hearing those lessons during the same mandatory 28 days of the year. There is so much more history to POC than just MLK, Rosa Parks, and the parts of slavery that tie into the Civil War. It bugs me even more when meeting people from across the country who say they haven’t learned anything more than MLK, Rosa Parks, and certain parts of slavery, and they only hear that stuff during the same mandatory 28 days of the year, so I know that it wasn’t just me or my state that has neglected information of my people. I wanted to prove that not only were there more interesting Black History topics, but also that there is enough to make a curriculum on it. I’ve only scratched the surface of one of the best kept secrets of the last century, so why can we not implement this into the lives of our children and future generations and see to it that we continue to change our society for the better by showing everyone the true nature, the true full history of the United States? Let’s learn from the raw past and not the edited Radio Mix version of it.

Q: With this contest, we want to feature pieces that challenge and discuss Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. How do you feel your piece accomplishes that goal?

A: I think regardless of what exactly my piece refers to, the fact that the key point of the paper is blatant racism should be enough in itself to get the point of discussing major societal issues.

However, whether my piece stands out from the rest because it’s an event that you haven’t heard of, or you know very little about, or because the entire event was swept under the rug by the people of that era, or because the government today stuffs the same Black History Month lessons of Black people and people of color being peaceful and civil down your throat for all four years of high school, is up for debate. I have portrayed how the racism expressed in my piece relates to today’s society, racism in economics, and the justice system. We paint the picture of a full scale history lesson that they don’t want you to know about, and I’ve only scratched the surface of this event. I’m confident that my topic could have an entire college class centered around it.

Q: How do you feel the genre of the project helped you effectively communicate to your audience? What were the advantages of this genre in particular?

A: The prompt was to give a brief guide on something we wanted to talk about, a beginner’s guide. I was able to really emphasize my sheer disgust that 99% of the people that read my piece know nothing about it. Even if I gave them the outline of it, the entire event would seem foreign to them, won’t ring any bells, won’t sound the tiniest bit familiar to them. I was able to say what I wanted to say, with no sugar coating, with no one telling me to take it down a notch. I was able to speak my mind on a topic that I knew shouldn’t be just silenced for “those that might be offended.” If we silenced every event that someone had an issue with, we would have no history class. The beginner’s guide topic also allowed me to research in depth a topic I’ve been wanting to write about since sophomore year of high school. I’m not sure if my writing really shows the full feeling I wanted to put in, but I wanted to show my surprise and anger at the details of the topic and how someone could just sweep this under the rug like it never happened, for 100 years.

Q: What did you learn through the process of research and completing this project, and/or the experience of preparing it for publication?

A: I learned that without the raw emotion you feel when you first write something that requires emotion, it will fall flat. You can’t worry about what anyone else thinks about it when writing something that’s sensitive. Put everything you have on the paper and worry about editing later. Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense in the moment, doesn’t matter if it’s redundant, doesn’t matter if it gets too emotional for other people, that is stuff to worry about later on when you are editing it down for submission.

Q: How has your writing process changed throughout your time at Elon? How do you feel English 1100 fostered that change?

A: The difference between English 1100 and writing in high school is the amount of freedom given. In high school it was a tossup if I was going to be given a prompt that I knew something about, or at least had some interest in. You are either forced to cram something in an hour or give an essay on something you have nothing to say about. English 1100 at Elon gives students the freedom to put all their writing skills into something they are passionate about, something they are interested in, something where they have some real stake in what they are writing about. Due to this, my writing process has gone from rushed, incomplete, and “just get it done” mentality, to calm, collected, and actually wanting to say much more than necessary. I feel that English 1100 has helped me improve as a writer by allowing me the freedom to actually write in a space I am comfortable writing, allowing me to use my skills in my comfort zone, instead of throwing me into an area I have no business being in.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: My advice is to first ask yourself one of two questions: “What is something you could give a 30-minute presentation on without any type of preparation?”, or, “What is something you want to be able to do that for?” These two questions get the gears in your head to start grinding on the things you are really passionate about or interested in. Maybe you could tell anyone, on the fly, the history of the waltz, or maybe explain the entire plot of Rick and Morty. Maybe you want to know the inner workings of a Lamborghini, or how much politics have influenced the life of others. Take that thought, whatever it is you are passionate about, and now ask yourself: “What can I teach myself about this topic?” From there you go forth and conquer.

ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Megan Isaac

Q: What is your overall approach to teaching ENG 1100?  

A: My ENG 1100 approach focuses on agency and choice (students select their own topics for most writing assignments), enhancement of research skills (students not only learn to use library resources but learn to appreciate how doing so increases their own confidence and authority as writers), and revision (students revise every project because virtually every piece of writing can be sharpened when we take a second or third run at it).

Q: What do you hope students get out of completing this particular project?

A: Devin wrote his piece as part of a Beginner’s Guide assignment that requires students to research a topic and introduce it to people who might lack familiarity with it. I hope students enjoy the opportunity to be experts—to take a topic they are passionate about, analyze it to discover what features and facts are most important, do research to make sure all information provided in the guide is well-sourced and accurate, and then seize the opportunity to tempt readers to share their passion or enthusiasm.

Q: In completing this project, did your student face any particular challenges? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?

A: As a writer, Devin exhibits a real skill with voice and tone. He can write personally and more academically as well. In this piece he wrestled a bit with finding a tone that conveyed the seriousness of the topic and communicated his own desire to use a friendly, personable style to draw readers into the story. He wanted to use a bit of both, and moving back and forth between these two “voices” required some rewriting. He also worked to balance very short paragraphs (often one sentence) against longer paragraphs filled with facts and quotations.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with your student on this project?

A: Devin’s enthusiasm for the topics he wrote about in ENG 1100 was infectious. (He also did a great project on Service Dogs and the impact of Covid on the multiple forms of socializing and training that are necessary prior to partnering each animal with a client.) Recognizing Devin’s eye for the moment, for picking a timely topic, was also rewarding. He did most of the work for his Tulsa Riot paper in March and April of 2021. After the term ended, I read a number of professional, journalistic accounts memorializing the riots in late May and early June as the 100 year anniversary occurred. I appreciated that Devin was on the cutting edge of this moment—writing a piece in anticipation of the event even before many professionals were doing so.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: Phoenix Rhetorix is a great opportunity to expand the audience for your own work. You’ve already written the assignment for your ENG 1110 class, there is nothing to lose by submitting it and a lot to gain.