The Greenwood District | An Overview
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.
In spite of efforts by some to thwart the rebuilding of the district, efforts began almost immediately to start over.
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 memorials.
The 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 service.
The 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 banquet hall. The Greenwood 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.
The 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 mixed-use cultural 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.
The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce has been and will likely continue to play a key role in the revitalization of the area. The GCC works with 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.