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Rebuilding Black Wall Street: Tulsa leaders hope to bring 100 new businesses

JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS | 3/6/2017, 11:21 a.m.
Not far from a gleaming $183 million arena and other signs of a midsize city striving to become something more, ...
Main photo: A memorial to Tulsa's Black Wall Street sits outside the Greenwood Cultural Center on the outskirts of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. A once-prosperous section of Tulsa that became the site of one of the worst race riots in American history is attempting to remake itself again after decades of neglect. Black leaders want to bring 100 new companies back by 2021, the 100th anniversary of its fall. Small photo: Greenwood neighborhood also known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is burned down during a race riot in 1921. The once-prosperous section of Tulsa that became the site of one of the worst race riots in American history is attempting to remake itself again after decades of neglect. Black leaders want to bring 100 new companies to the former Black Wall Street in north Tulsa by 2021, the 100th anniversary of its fall. Sue Ogrocki and the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum

TULSA, Okla. (AP) – 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 – made up Black Wall Street, a southwestern Harlem of sorts and home to a middle and upper class of 9,000 African Americans. Here, shop owners, doctors and entrepreneurs – some of them freed slaves looking for a new start in the recently incorporated oil boomtown – thrived.

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 African American communities, particularly poorer ones.

Leaders here are seeking manufacturers, grocery store owners and housing developers. U.S. Sen. James Lankford, among the project’s higher-profile 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 quarter-mile 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.