Re­vival of Black Wall Street goal of north Tul­sans

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - JUSTIN JUOZA­PAVI­CIUS

TULSA — Not far from a gleam­ing $183 mil­lion arena and other signs of a mid­size city striv­ing to be­come some­thing more, smooth pave­ment gives way to pot­holes, rusted fences and shut­tered store­fronts. They’re the rem­nants of what was once known as Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, be­fore one of the worst race ri­ots in U.S. his­tory.

Busi­nesses that are still open in this north-side sec­tion that some lo­cals are adamant about re­viv­ing — the off-brand gas-and-go stores, the thrift shops and sal­vage yards — are of­ten sep­a­rated from the next open place by gnarled weeds, rusted fence and va­cant lots.

Much of this — 35 square blocks of it — used to be known as Black Wall Street, a south­west­ern Har­lem of sorts and home to a mid­dle and up­per class of 9,000 blacks. Here, shop own­ers, doc­tors and en­trepreneurs — some of them freed slaves look­ing for a new start in the re­cently in­cor­po­rated oil boom town — thrived in Tulsa.

In 1921, over the course of roughly 16 hours, a race riot dec­i­mated the eco­nomic and cul­tural mecca. The tally of ca­su­al­ties seemed more in line with the af­ter­math of a mil­i­tary bat­tle — 300 dead, 800 wounded, more than 8,000 left home­less.

Blacks re­built the area in the decades that fol­lowed, only to see their work wiped out dur­ing the so-called ur­ban progress of the 1960s.

At­tempt­ing to make good on failed hopes of an even­tual re­nais­sance, black lead­ers want to bring 100 busi­nesses here by 2021, mark­ing the race riot’s 100th an­niver­sary.

“How can we pay homage by build­ing this com­mu­nity back up to what Black Wall Street was and em­brac­ing di­ver­sity?” said Reg­gie Ivey, who grew up in the area and is chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at the Tulsa Health De­part­ment.

Those lead­ing the NorthTulsa100 ini­tia­tive ac­knowl­edge it’s an am­bi­tious, per­haps au­da­cious, en­deavor. The project is sure to be met with dif­fi­cul­ties, as cities around the coun­try con­front sim­i­lar chal­lenges with get­ting busi­nesses to move back into black com­mu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­larly poorer ones.

Lead­ers here are seek­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers, gro­cery store own­ers and hous­ing devel­op­ers. U.S. Sen. James Lank­ford, among the project’s high­er­pro­file sup­port­ers, says the ini­tia­tive is “not look­ing just for black busi­nesses” but com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment in gen­eral “to re-en­gage a com­mu­nity that is still scarred years later.”

“North Tulsa has a stigma of be­ing one of the worst places in town,” said Donna Jack­son, the project’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “We don’t have a gro­cery store, we don’t have shop­ping.”

Jack­son’s pitch to prospec­tive in­vestors is to talk up the dozens of va­cant parcels they could snap up for a frac­tion of what they’d pay down­town, just a cou­ple miles away.

“I don’t think peo­ple know this is just sit­ting here,” Jack­son said, sur­vey­ing a quar­ter­mile-long par­cel of land on a re­cent af­ter­noon. “All it takes is one com­pany — just one com­pany.”

In the early 1900s, with Tulsa and the rest of Ok­la­homa racially seg­re­gated, Black Wall Street was an is­land in a city, where res­i­dents op­er­ated their own post of­fice, po­lice force, school sys­tem and two news­pa­pers. Some had modern ameni­ties, like in­door plumb­ing, long be­fore their white coun­ter­parts. The Strad­ford Ho­tel, Dream­land The­ater and Mount Zion Bap­tist Church were some of the more prom­i­nent so­cial cen­ters in the com­mu­nity.

In 1921, ru­mors of an en­counter be­tween a black man and a white woman in a down­town el­e­va­tor spread, spark­ing anger among white res­i­dents and Ku Klux Klan mem­bers. Ac­counts of what hap­pened on the el­e­va­tor var­ied, but an­gry res­i­dents weren’t will­ing to wait to sort it out. A news­pa­per ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Nab Ne­gro for At­tack­ing Girl in El­e­va­tor” fanned the flames.

A white mob de­scended on the area, loot­ing busi­nesses and leav­ing homes and churches smol­der­ing. Left­over World War I planes that dropped bombs on the Ger­mans just three years ear­lier were now em­ployed to de­stroy the prop­erty of fel­low Amer­i­cans.

“What wasn’t torched to the ground, they blew up. They blew up just about every­thing,” says Lau­rel Strad­ford, whose great-grand­fa­ther was one of the wealth­i­est men in town and owned the name­sake ho­tel de­stroyed in the riot.

Blacks re­built the area in the decades that fol­lowed, only to see their work wiped out yet again, this time un­der the guise of ur­ban re­newal and a new highway that cut through the heart of the dis­trict.

In the 1970s and ’80s, black res­i­dents who could leave fled to the suburbs. One by one, the gro­ceries, mom and pop din­ers and store­fronts closed. Houses were boarded up, al­low­ing blight and crime to creep in.

Count­ing ex­ist­ing busi­nesses that have re­cently opened or are un­der con­struc­tion and com­mit­ments se­cured to re­lo­cate here, Jack­son es­ti­mates she’s 20 per­cent of the way to the goal, which must be met in four years.

Some busi­nesses are warm­ing to the idea. Pine Place De­vel­op­ment en­vi­sions bring­ing shop­ping, din­ing, a cul­tural mu­seum and up­scale apart­ments to the area.

Tim Small­wood, who opened Trop­i­cal Smoothie Cafe in 2013, also sees the po­ten­tial for a re­birth. He said fam­ily mem­bers told him he was “crazy” to in­vest money there.

“In a lot of peo­ple’s minds, you are a poor com­mu­nity,” Small­wood said.

But his in­vest­ment paid off: The cafe has seen dou­bledigit gains.

Ralph Knight, a re­tired air­line me­chanic whose mother was 6 when the ri­ot­ing be­gan, said a turn­around could rem­edy some of the blight that now pocks the com­mu­nity and give a younger gen­er­a­tion rea­son to hope — and stay — in north Tulsa.

“It’s go­ing to do some­thing to help the black com­mu­nity; it’s go­ing to be some­thing to help the kids,” Knight said. “It will cut down on gang vi­o­lence.”

Jack­son, the project di­rec­tor who grew up here, knows the long odds, but draws upon what was pos­si­ble here nearly a cen­tury ago.

“They paved a path. What they taught us was peo­ple from any­where can do any­thing,” she said.

AP/SUE OGROCKI

Tim Small­wood talks dur­ing an in­ter­view in his Trop­i­cal Smoothie Cafe shop in north Tulsa in De­cem­ber.

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