President Trump had planned to hold a rally this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the site of the worst racial attack in U.S. history, by many accounts. After days of controversy over that choice, he changed the date.
The history of the massacre in the area, which was also known as “Black Wall Street,” has shined a spotlight on the formation of an affluent Black community and the gruesome events that destroyed it.
In 1921, a white mob attacked a predominantly Black area in Tulsa, killing hundreds of people and destroying the country’s wealthiest African-American community. Its abrupt demise and similar incidents around the country during that period played a role in widening the racial wealth divide, experts say.
Part of what enraged critics, Trump had planned to speak to supporters on June 19, or Juneteenth, known as Emancipation Day — the date in 1865 when a Union general traveled to Galveston, Texas to read President Lincoln’s orders freeing the slaves.
“This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists—he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted Thursday. Now Trump will hold the rally one day later on June 20th.
Trump’s plan followed weeks of protests across the country over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.
Trump has denied that he chose the location and date to play off racial divisions. “Think about it as a celebration,” he had said.
The controversy, however, is highlighting anew the Tulsa Race Massacre, a horrific event whose legacy still reverberates in Black communities.
The rise of ‘Black Wall Street’
The attack occurred in a thriving 35-block, mostly Black district known as Greenwood. The area was part of a larger region developed by Native American tribes that had been forced to move there from their ancestral homes in the eastern U.S., and, along with their African-American former slaves, could acquire property.
In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, bought 40 acres of property in Tulsa and named it Greenwood after the Mississippi city. He started a boarding house for African Americans, ensured land was sold only to Black people and provided loans for new business ventures.
Soon other Black entrepreneurs flocked to the area. J.B. Stradford started the country’s largest Black-owned hotel. A.J. Smitherman, a publisher, founded the Tulsa Star, a Black newspaper. The district, population 10,000, became a bustling enclave of grocery stores, hotels, schools, churches, libraries, luxury shops, banks and two movie theaters.
But the success of the area, which included both wealthy and middle-class residents, fueled jealousy, particularly among less fortunate whites.
“The idea of Black communities thriving economically on their own — and in some cases having residents doing better financially than the average white person at the time — would have caused resentment,” says Chris Messer, a sociology professor at Colorado State University who has studied the massacre. “They would be seen as being out of line.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, was accused of attempting to rape Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator in the Drexel Building.
Fearing Rowland would be lynched, about 75 armed Black men converged on the courthouse to guard him. They were confronted, however, by about 1,500 whites.
Although the Black men retreated to Greenwood, the white mobs followed, looting and burning homes and businesses and shooting Black residents at random. About 300 people died and the attack left more than $2 million in real estate and personal property damage, including savings that were kept in homes by residents who mistrusted white-owned banks. Thousands of Black people were left homeless. The ferocity of the onslaught likely was intensified by the white attackers’ animosity toward the well-heeled community, Messer says.
The next day, the National Guard came and declared martial law, and the charges against Rowland were dropped. Police figured he may have accidentally bumped into Page or stepped on her foot, prompting her to scream.
Black officials quickly set out to rebuild Greenwood but received no help from the city, Messer says. Although the district still exists, it has been integrated and never regained its prominence.
“That kind of outcome fuels mistrust,” Messer says, comparing it to recent black protesters’ mistrust of police and other authorities.
The Tulsa massacre was the worst of several dozen similar episodes across the country during that era, including in Rosewood, Florida, Messer says. The decimation of the prosperous black communities played a part in curtailing wealth in the Black community, which is often passed from generation to generation, Messer says.
“A wealth gap reflects current gaps in income, but is also linked to historical inequality as some wealth is inherited or accumulated via family advantages, “ says Brookings senior fellow Jay Shambaugh.
Racial wealth divide lingers
In 2016, the median net worth of a white family — $171,000 — was ten times greater than that of a Black family, according to a Brookings Institution study published in February.
The disparity exists even between white and Black families in the same income bracket. Among those in the top 10% by income, the median net worth for white families is $1.8 million, compared to $343,000 for Black families.
Brookings cites several reasons for the gap, including the Tulsa episode. The research group also points to Jim Crow era laws restricting opportunities for Black people in many southern states. And whites get larger inheritances while blacks are more likely to have to financially aid family members and neighbors, Brooking says.
Black Americans also struggle to obtain credit to buy a home, a significant way to build wealth. When they do, real estate agents sometimes steer them away from more expensive homes in white neighborhoods, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of antidiscrimination laws, according to a National Association of Realtors report.
“The racial wealth disparities we see today are the product of a long historical process of black exclusion from the economy and white inclusion into wealth distribution,” says Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University. “America has a history of sharing its wealth— via homesteads, homeowner programs, and the like— with white Americans while deliberately excluding black people.”