Survivors of Black Wall Street race riot still haven’t received any reparations

by Yvette Carnell, BreakingBrown

The people of Black Wall Street, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, look around at the devastation of the entire 1 square mile neighborhood after the smoke cleared. Many of their neighbors had died; estimates range from 300 to 3,000, proponents of the larger number citing stories of a mass grave. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society
The people of Black Wall Street, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, look around at the devastation of the entire 1 square mile neighborhood after the smoke cleared. Many of their neighbors had died; estimates range from 300 to 3,000, proponents of the larger number citing stories of a mass grave. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society

Some financial observers attribute the Black community’s economic woes to our unwillingness to financially support Black businesses. Well, back in 1921, in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, community named Black Wall Street, a dollar circulated 19 times before leaving the community.

That was before a white mob destroyed the town. Given the ferocity of the attack and the complicity of Oklahoma police, one would think that by now survivors would’ve been compensated for what they endured, but they haven’t been.

As BreakingBrown previously reported, Black Wall Street had its own theaters, grocery stores, independent newspapers and professional Black class before being demolished by an irate white mob angry over a Black teen’s alleged assault of a white female. (The Bay View’s main Black Wall Street story is one of the most popular on our website. – ed.)

Women taken prisoner ride in a paddy wagon, an armed white guard – probably a police officer – riding on the running board. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society
Women taken prisoner ride in a paddy wagon, an armed white guard – probably a police officer – riding on the running board. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society

In the 1921 riot, whites attacked Blacks who were living in the Greenwood area, also known as Black Wall Street. The Tulsa police were not only indifferent, but they also took part in the destruction of the wealthiest Black city in America, with officers helping to set fire to the property of Blacks who had lived and thrived in that area.

As a result of white supremacist terrorism, an estimated 10,000 Blacks were left homeless and 35 city blocks were burned to the ground. Blacks who had been injured during the assault could not even seek medical care because the Black hospital was one of the buildings torched by white mobs.

Even white attorneys in the area didn’t buy the story that the Black teen had attacked the white teenager, one reportedly having said: “Why, I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That’s not in him.”

As a result of white supremacist terrorism, an estimated 10,000 Blacks were left homeless and 35 city blocks were burned to the ground.

Black Wall Street survivor Olivia Hooker, now 99, has never given up hope for restitution. She was 6 years old when her father’s department store was destroyed. – Photo: Dexter Mullins
Black Wall Street survivor Olivia Hooker, now 99, has never given up hope for restitution. She was 6 years old when her father’s department store was destroyed. – Photo: Dexter Mullins

After the riot, Mayor T.D. Evans told a commission that what happened was “inevitable,” adding, “Let us immediately get to the outside fact that everything is quiet in our city, that this menace has been fully conquered, and that we are going on in a normal condition.”

And the city moved on and the people who lost everything, like Olivia Hooker, who is 99 now, have never been compensated for their loss.

Hooker, who was only a child during the riot, described to Al Jazeera how it impacted her. “After she witnessed white Tulsans loot her town, her perceptions of race were dramatically altered,” writes Dexter Mullins in “Survivors of infamous 1921 Tulsa race riot still hope for justice.”

The city moved on and the people who lost everything, like Olivia Hooker, who is 99 now, have never been compensated for their loss.

Like Black business districts in many cities before desegregation, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street supplied all the Black community’s needs, with all sorts of Black businesses, like this movie theater, and Black professionals. A dollar circulated 19 times before leaving the neighborhood. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society
Like Black business districts in many cities before desegregation, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street supplied all the Black community’s needs, with all sorts of Black businesses, like this movie theater, and Black professionals. A dollar circulated 19 times before leaving the neighborhood. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society

“I was 6 years and 3 months old when it occurred and the reason it was so devastating to me was that I had never been made aware of discrimination and hatred,” Hooker told Mullins.

“The only people that I saw who were not of my hue were people who were trying to sell something to my father for his department store and so they behaved as salesmen do. They brought things, they listened to my sister play Bach and they tried to engage the children so my father would buy their products.

“That was my image of people of another hue, and so when this terrible thing happened, it really destroyed my faith in humanity. It took a good long while for me to get over it.”

Blacks valiantly fought the fires that terrible day, June 1, 1921, to no avail. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society
Blacks valiantly fought the fires that terrible day, June 1, 1921, to no avail. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society

Mullins writes: “As the mob spread through Greenwood and the National Guard arrived to evacuate Black residents from their homes, Hooker’s mother saw crowds of people standing on a nearby hillside watching the disaster – with their children in tow. Hooker describes the speech her mother gave to the onlookers of the destruction”:

“She decided that all families who had brought their children to watch the destruction of the African American people – she thought she’d better tell them something. So she stood up there and gave an oration on the fact that what they were doing, bringing children to watch this, was going to be visited upon them unto the third and fourth generation,” said Hooker.

“So the children started crying and the people who brought their children to see the destruction said: ‘Make that woman shut up. She’s scaring our children.’

“And a man came from the group. I presume he was a veteran, because he limped. And he said to my mother, ‘If you’ll finish your oration, I can’t go in your house while the monsters are still in there, but I promise you when they leave I’ll go down and try to snuff out all the little blazes that they set.”

Ku Klux Klan membership grew after the destruction of Black Wall Street. Here they gather in Drumright, Okla., in 1922, the following year. And in 2001, 80 years later, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended in a 178-page report that survivors be paid reparations, calling it a “moral obligation,” hate calls flooded into the Greenwood Cultural Center, where a plaque lists the financial claims of the over 200 who’ve sued, adding up to $2,719,745.61. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society
Ku Klux Klan membership grew after the destruction of Black Wall Street. Here they gather in Drumright, Okla., in 1922, the following year. And in 2001, 80 years later, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended in a 178-page report that survivors be paid reparations, calling it a “moral obligation,” hate calls flooded into the Greenwood Cultural Center, where a plaque lists the financial claims of the over 200 who’ve sued, adding up to $2,719,745.61. – Photo: Tulsa Historical Society

“After 93 years of fighting for restitution,” Mullins writes, “Hooker admits it is not likely she’ll ever receive anything”:

“We thought we might live long enough to see something happen,” Hooker told him, “but even though I’ve lived 99 years, nothing of that sort has actually happened. You keep hope alive, so to speak, and just keep right on trying – never giving up, never, never giving up.”

Real reparations, however, come in dollars and cents, not words.

There are fewer than a dozen survivors of the riot, and they will all probably die without being compensated. All city officials have offered them thus far are empty apologies.

“I cannot apologize for the actions, inaction and dereliction that those individual officers and their chief exhibited during that dark time,” said Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan in 2013. “But as your chief today, I can apologize for our police department. I am sorry and distressed that the Tulsa Police Department did not protect its citizens during those tragic days in 1921.”

Real reparations, however, come in dollars and cents, not words.

Yvette Carnell writes about politics, international and cultural issues on Your Black World and is the founder of BreakingBrown, where this story first appeared. She can be reached at editor@breakingbrown.com or via http://about.me/yvettecarnell. Bay View staff contributed to this story.