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The History of the Greenwood District: Rebounding & Rebuilding

Posted at 9:06 AM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 11:50:13-05

TULSA, Okla. — "It was a network from those townships that brought people to Tulsa."

Terry Baccus, a Tulsa native and Greenwood District tour guide, says the Greenwood District can trace its roots back to 50 all-black towns scattered across the Sooner state and of course oil, the growing force for Oklahoma.

"I believe those are the two factors of Greenwood being what it was," Baccus said.

Baccus himself is a product of a father from Vernon and a mother from Tallahassee, two all-black towns in Oklahoma. He said the lure of a good life in Tulsa is the reason for the growth of the Greenwood District.

"My mom's brothers were up here next, my mom's sister was up here next, then eventually my grandmother came," he said.

Baccus said those who came either started a business or crossed the tracks to work for an oil company. The money they made stayed in the District.

Times were good. So good, Dr. Booker T. Washington, founding father of Tuskegee University, had this to say:

"’I've been to Harlem, I've been to Memphis, I've been to Chicago, but I've never seen African Americans prosper like they are prospering in Tulsa Greenwood’ and he called it the Black Wall Street of America," said Dr. Freeman Culver, CEO of the Historic Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.

Black families and black entrepreneurship thrived.

Patricia Breeckner, President of the Greenwood Business Association, says from Archer to Pine and from Lansing to Cincinnati, craftsman style homes were built for self-sufficient black Tulsans. The area supported 191 businesses.

"It just boomed," Breeckner said. "They welcomed everyone. (There were) different types of people and different nationalities here."

But that all changed in 1921.

"Then we had this 18-hour massacre," Dr. Culver said.

The 1921 Race Massacre was a dark period of Tulsa's history. But what people may not have learned is that Greenwood came back from the ashes bigger and better than ever.

"The people within one year they rebuilt these buildings with their own money," Dr. Culver said. "No insurance, no support from the city, from the state, and did it themselves."

Dr. Culver says from 1922 until the late 1940s Greenwood was once again booming. The Greenwood Cultural Center reports expensive homes lived Detroit Avenue. Greenwood Avenue housed the offices of almost all of Tulsa's black doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Deep Greenwood was a model African American community to towns worldwide.

"It was known as the little Africa of the Southwest," Dr. Culver said.

"It was up to over 300 businesses before urban renewal," Breeckner said.

For a second time Greenwood was hit hard. Breeckner says urban renewal and the construction of I-244 devastated the area. Desegregation allowed black families to shop elsewhere.

Businesses suffered.

"Today all we have are these 10 buildings," Dr. Culver said.

But that's all changing. For a third time Greenwood is growing.

"We have 30 businesses and 28 of them are African-American," Dr. Culver said. "And there's a 21st Century Black Wall Street History Center that's coming."

There's also a push to get Greenwood on the National Registry.

"Most people think it is on the National Registry and it's not," Breeckner said. "So, we'll get the tourism that needs to come, and they'll see the history."

"It's like Greenwood has been on life support," Baccus said. "But the next 50 years (will be) the recovery."

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