100 Years Later, We Honor Black Wall Street
A century ago, a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned to the ground.
In the early 1900’s, many African-Americans migrated to Tulsa after the Civil War - carrying dreams of freedom found in owning businesses away from racial oppression. As families arrived and the community of Greenwood grew, the need for service businesses, schools and retail became essential. By 1921, the neighborhood of Greenwood was home to roughly 10,000 residents. This thriving community of commerce and family life had everything from churches and grocery stores, to hotels, nightclubs and theaters. Around 40% of the community’s residents were professionals or skilled craftspeople, like doctors, pharmacists, carpenters and hairdressers. Many residents also owned their homes. By 1921, Greenwood had grown into a 35-block neighborhood with vibrant and successful black owned businesses including two schools, two newspapers and a hospital. Greenwood was so successful, it became home to what was known as America’s Black Wall Street.
On May 31, 1921, the prosperous neighborhood went up in flames in what was known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Two days of bloodshed and destruction ensued and despite efforts to protect their property, Black residents were outnumbered and outpowered. The massacre killed around 300 Black residents, their homes and businesses burned to the ground. The name Post 21 pays homage to Black Wall Street. The founders of Black Wall Street believed for Black people to have the best economic success they had to pool their resources, work together and support each other. These sentiments are shared by the team behind Post 21. Decades after Black Wall Street was destroyed, we still have not reached economic parity. We are working towards making a change in this "post 21” era.
Meet Some of Black Wall Street's Finest Entrepreneurs
John Wesley Williams and wife, Loula Cotten Williams, and their son, William Danforth Williams, sitting in a 1911 Norwalk automobile
John Wesley and Loula Tom Williams were among Greenwood’s first residents. They met in John’s home state of Mississippi (Loula was born in Tennessee) and moved to Tulsa around 1903. In 1909, John secured a position operating the steam-powered chilling equipment at The Thompson Ice Cream Company. His skill was in such demand and the job paid so well, that by 1911, the family purchased Greenwood’s first car: A brand new Chalmers “Thirty Pony Tonneau,” named for its 30 horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine. The car cost $1,600 at the time (about $53,000 in today’s dollars). By 1912, he had such a large clientele that he resigned from his job at the ice cream company to open his own auto repair garage. Williams’ One Stop Garage, at 420 E. Archer St., served both black and white car owners from all over Tulsa. His wife, Loula ran The Williams Confectionery which sold candy, ice cream, and featured a fully-stocked soda fountain. Her shop quickly became the most popular hangout for teens and young couples of all races and was believed to have more engagements happen there than anywhere else in the community. By 1914, their businesses were running so well the family set their sights on a new entrepreneurial goal: opening a movie theatre. The Empress Theatre opened around June 1913, at 17 W. 3rd Street and quickly became one of the most popular attractions. The new theatre had a seating capacity of 750, with movie tickets costing 15 cents.
101-105 Greenwood Avenue - Dr. R.T. Bridgewater was a physician with a practice in the Woods Building. He owned 17 houses and was also a community leader. The Tulsa Star, a Black-owned newspaper, called his home on the affluent North Detroit Street “palatial.” Several women set up shop as entrepreneurs in the same building. Mary E. Jones Parrish, left, was a teacher and journalist who operated a typing school. Mabel B. Little ran the Little Rose Beauty Salon.
112 Greenwood Ave - Susie Bell ran an upscale restaurant called Bell and Little Cafe with her brother, Presley Little, Ms. Little’s husband. The cafe was a wildly popular meeting place that even white people broke color lines to dine in. It offered six-course meals and were widely known for their famous smothered chicken. The Bell and Little cafe held banquets to help raise money and also hosted high profile dinners for years. Susie Bell was known as an influential figure in the community and consistently written about in newspaper articles including The Tulsa Star.
119 Greenwood Ave - Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer, who had an office inside a building owned by O.W. Gurley, one of Greenwood’s founders. After the massacre, he was notably known for defending the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by providing legal services from a tent.
121 Greenwood Ave - James Nails, shown here, and his brother Henry ran a shoe shop in the Gist Building. The shop carried Black Swan records - which was the first black-owned recording company that sold popular music to black audiences. Nails family also owned a dance pavilion and skating rink in the community.