On June 1, 1921, white rioters looted and burned the all-black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Okla., known as Black Wall Street. Angry at the economic success of blacks in the area (which became known as “Black Wall Street” because of the number of successful businesses and wealthy black inhabitants), white Tulsans accused a black man of raping a girl and attacked the area.
While white citizens used dynamite and planes to bomb the city, leaving more than 8,000 people homeless, eyewitness accounts charge that the vast majority of the people killed (estimates range from 80 to 300) died because the city’s law enforcement officers deputized every able-bodied white man and handed out weapons from the city’s armory.
There is no official death toll, but most historians agree that the count was around 250, because many African Americans were buried in mass graves, while others fled the city.
No one was ever convicted of a single crime.
Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is often pointed to as the singular example of black economic empowerment and how black communities can create their own opportunity and wealth. But it is important to know that Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood is not the only historical example of the power and importance of African-American economic self-determination; it might not even be the most significant.
Between the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, there were many black communities that thrived economically solely based on the black dollar. Here are a few.
“Today, there is a singular group in Durham where a black man may get up in the morning from a mattress made by a black man, in a house which a black man built out of lumber which black men cut and planed; he may put on a suit which he bought at a colored haberdashery and socks knit at a colored mill; he may cook victuals from a colored grocery on a stove which black men fashioned; he may earn his living working for colored men, be sick in a colored hospital and buried from a colored church; and the Negro insurance society will pay his widow enough to keep his children in school. This is surely progress.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, freedmen coming to Durham, N.C., to work in the tobacco warehouses began living on the southern edge of the city. James E. Shepard, Aaron McDuffie Moore, John Merrick and Charles Clinton Spaulding, some of the founding fathers of the growing neighborhood, named the area after Haiti—the first free, independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
Shepard, Moore and Merrick went on to found the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., which became the richest black-owned company during that time and still has assets of over $200 million. The men also started a land-development company that built many of the homes and businesses in the area.
By the early 1900s, Hayti was the first black community to become fully self-sufficient. It built Lincoln Hospital, staffed by black doctors and nurses, as well as a theater, a library, hotels and over 200 businesses. North Carolina Central University was founded in Hayti in 1910 and became the first liberal arts HBCU to be state-funded in 1925.
Because blacks were still excluded from North Carolina’s political system, the community began to decline when the process of urban renewal divided the community with a freeway. The community was eventually encompassed by Durham. St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the country’s oldest AME churches (founded in 1891), still stands as the Hayti Cultural Center.
In the shadow of Virginia’s Capitol lies the Richmond neighborhood called Jackson Ward. Before black people moved to Oklahoma en masse, newly freed slaves began occupying the area on the northern edge of Richmond’s downtown district.
Soon, so many businesses emerged in the predominantly black community that it was called the “birthplace of black capitalism.” Because the area was home to so many black-owned banks, insurance companies and other investment groups, it garnered another name that, because of a tragedy, would eventually become better-known somewhere else:
The Black Wall Street.
In the early part of the 20th century, Jackson Ward’s business and entertainment district was called the “Harlem of the South,” hosting names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Richmond’s own Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In 1910 the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank opened in Jackson Ward. Its owner was Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman to found a bank in the U.S.
Much like Hayti, Jackson Ward’s decline began with the all-white City Council’s plan for building and revitalizing the city, targeting Jackson Ward. A plan to build federal housing further decimated the area after only 25 of the neighborhood’s displaced families were allowed to live in the 297 units that replaced the 200 homes that were torn down. The all-white Virginia State Assembly completed the dismantling of the historic area when it voted to run a section of Interstate 95 through the neighborhood in the 1950s.
During the heart of the Jim Crow era, the population of Birmingham, Ala., was much different from the city’s current demographics. But in 1950, most of the city’s 37 percent black population did their business in a downtown area of Fourth Avenue, known as the Black Business District.
The area, also known as “Little Harlem,” boasted retail shops, attorneys, doctor’s offices, a half-dozen hotels and much more. The buildings were designed by black architects and built by black construction companies, including the six-story structure built by the black-owned Penny Savings Bank.
Because the city was racially segregated but home to a thriving iron-and-steel industry, Birmingham’s middle class sustained black-owned banks and insurance companies. By the end of segregation, 60 percent of the city’s black-owned businesses (pdf) were in the Black Business District.
The area was also home to Birmingham’s famous civil rights struggles. Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, notoriously bombed by Klansmen, rests in the center of the Black Business District.
Integration eventually dispersed black businesses throughout the city, and Birmingham is 74 percent black, meaning that black businesses abound everywhere. But the famous writer Octavious Cohen wrote:
It’s the Harlem of the South, more famous than Beale Street, more swanky than Cotton Avenue and more vivid than Lenox Avenue. It’s that small zone that extends down Fourth Avenue and takes in Seventeenth Street.
In 1932, despite being warned by notorious bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy Floyd” that the citizens of Boley, Okla., were all armed and knew how to shoot, two members of Floyd’s gang attempted to rob the town’s black-owned bank. The criminals ignored their boss, went to the bank and warned everyone not to set off the alarm, and the customers dutifully complied.
Then the citizens of Boley pulled out their guns and killed both robbers.
Boley was founded in 1903 in the Creek Nation of Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. Called “the finest black town in the world” by Booker T. Washington, the city boasted more than 4,000 residents at its height, and the African American Registry called it “the wealthiest black town in the country,” according to the Washington Post.
The town, incorporated in 1905, supported a newspaper, two colleges, its own water system and a black-owned electrical plant in the early 1900s. A few years later, Boley boasted five grocery stores, five hotels, seven restaurants, four cotton gins, three drugstores, a jewelry store, four department stores, two insurance companies, two photographers and an ice plant. Because it was the only black-owned town in the area, black people who could not shop, eat or stay in hotels elsewhere traveled for miles to bank and do business in Boley.
The population of Boley declined during the Great Depression and World War II, but the city still exists. Every year it hosts one of the largest and most popular black rodeos. After visiting Boley, Booker T. Washington wrote:
Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected; something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.
In short, Boley is another chapter in the long struggle of the negro for moral, industrial, and political freedom.