On the porch that night, Ross got a schooling that changed his life as the men shared painful secrets that made them rock on the swing faster and faster.
Stunned by what he heard, Ross wanted to learn more. So he began asking questions of the older people in his family and the community. They confirmed what he was learning from Mr. W.D. and Mr. Williams. That Greenwood was once so prosperous that it was known around the nation as Black Wall Street, as one of the most successful communities of Black Americans in the country—full of Black-owned restaurants, hotels, barbershops, hairdressers, legal offices, mechanics, clothing stores, shoe stores, clubs, movie theaters, beautiful homes, and a high-performing school system. Six Black residents even owned their own airplanes.
But on one morning in 1921, a mob consisting of thousands of racist White Tulsans had swarmed the neighborhood, shooting Black people, looting their homes, and torching their properties until the entire thirty-five- square-block area had been demolished. Airplanes even shot at them and dropped firebombs from the sky.
But Mr. W.D. and Mr. Williams also spoke with pride about how they themselves and their parents and neighbors defended their homes and businesses. They spoke of how, after the burning, the community rebuilt Greenwood so that it was better than ever.
What Ross learned began to crack open the door to a story so shameful that Tulsa's residents had conspired for more than thirty years to keep it secret, and the horrors of which have still been only partially revealed, even today, a century after the incident.
As he interviewed his elders, Ross began to change. The story ignited a passion that would fuel him for the rest of his life.
Here are some of the stories he and others have uncovered about the Greenwood District—about Black Wall Street—in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Beyond Hatred's Reach
On a warm May night in 1913, in the shadowy lamplight of Greenwood's First Baptist Church, Black men wearing expensive suits and white gloves and Black women in their finest white dresses waited expectantly.
Scarcely a spot in the pews was empty, for the main speaker of the evening was Captain Townsend D. Jackson, a man whose life experience was unique among Black Americans. Townsend had lived through a time when many White Americans in the North, as well as the overwhelming majority in the South, refused to accept that Black people were fully human. Even though they could witness with their own eyes that Black people could think for themselves, experience and express feelings, and profess their spirituality, racist White people pretended they could not see Black people's humanity. Instead, they told themselves and each other that Black people were "things," that Black adults were like children, or that people who were clearly, well, people, were instead animals or beasts.
The belief that White people, and their ideas, thoughts, and actions, are better than and should dominate people of other races or ethnicities, is known as White supremacy. Historically, vast numbers of White people in the United States believed in White supremacy—virtually all White Southerners and many Northerners as well. For a long time, these beliefs were the norm, and racists could insult, use, abuse, beat, whip, assault, neglect, molest, rape, and even terrorize Black people. And because these practices were so widespread and accepted, they would rarely face repercussions or punishment.
These White supremacist beliefs grew out of the history of American slavery. In the United States, racists forced Black people into chattel slavery, the most vicious type. Chattel slavery meant the enslaver actually owned people and owned them forever. One of its most heartless aspects—one that made it tremendously profitable for the enslaver—is that any baby born into slavery was also owned perpetually by the enslaver. That child would then be forced to work for free for their entire life. Under chattel slavery, an enslaver could buy and sell people whenever they wanted to, just as if the people were property. And they did. They broke families apart and sold children away from their parents.
White supremacists practiced chattel slavery primarily within the eleven Confederate states that attempted to withdraw, or secede, from the United States during the Civil War—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—and the five states that bordered the Confederacy—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia. By the time of the Civil War, slavery was practiced less frequently in the North; however, both indentured servitude and chattel slavery had been practiced there during the colonial era, when European colonists enslaved both Native Americans and Africans. Unlike chattel slavery, indentured servitude allowed a person to work down their debt—often a loan a European had taken out to migrate to the United States—in order to achieve their freedom. Indentured servants were subject to far less violence, and their children weren't born enslaved. Human beings enslaved under chattel slavery had no rights. No rights to be safe; no rights to the money they ought to have earned from the labor they were forced to do; no rights to earn their freedom by working off debt, as indentured servitude permitted.
By 1913, when Captain Townsend spoke with the people of Greenwood, fifty years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation ended enslavement in the Confederate states. He was among the dwindling number of survivors of chattel slavery. The following describes the kind of world that the captain and other formerly enslaved people endured, resisted, and even thrived in. These conditions were also the historical foundation of what happened to Tulsa's Black Wall Street in 1921.