A century ago, the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, buzzed with Black entrepreneurship, creating a thriving Black middle class unlike anywhere else in the U.S. at the time.
The area was so successful that famed author and orator Booker T. Washington dubbed it the “Black Wall Street of America” in 1913.
But the thriving neighborhood was shattered in 1921 by a mob of white vigilantes, apoplectic over trumped-up charges of rape against a Black resident and resentment of well-to-do Black citizens. Three hundred people were killed, thousands were wounded and approximately 35 acres of commercial and residential property within the district were destroyed
Earlier this year, survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre recalled the scenes of horror and the evisceration of the city that once was.
“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire,” 107-year-old Viola Fletcher testified in front of a Congressional committee in May about the 1921 killings.
Another survivor of the two-day span of violence against Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district, World War II veteran Hughes Van Ellis, lamented the losses and the thought of “what it could have been,” he told members of Congress.
Now 100 years later, there is a renewed push to rebuild the Black Wall Street, but the question is how.
Some say it can be rebuilt through technology and business. As a result, computer science education programs, startup accelerators and venture capitalists have recently staked claims in Tulsa.
Others, particularly in academia, say reparations for those affected by the massacre and their descendants are long overdue after the government largely ignored the atrocity, not even issuing a formal apology until earlier this year.
Most Black Tulsans today live in North Tulsa, and one-third of North Tulsans live below the poverty line, according to the Brookings Institute.
The massacre was estimated to have resulted in a $200-million loss in assets for the area’s Black community, according to The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.
Presently, Black-owned businesses “comprise only 1.25% of the area’s nearly 20,000 businesses,” the Brookings Institute’s analysis found.
While data on Black-owned businesses throughout the years in Tulsa since the massacre is hard to secure, the economic state of Black people in Tulsa has been bleak, mirroring the stark Black-white wealth gap throughout the nation. Median household income for Black households in Tulsa is below $30,000; it is above $50,000 for white households, according to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report. The same report also found that unemployment is 2.37 times higher for Black than for white Tulsans
A new tech ecosystem
Several business and tech leaders are working on Tulsa’s revival as a hub for Black wealth. Some business heavyweights involved include Oklahoma-based billionaire George Kaiser; John Rogers, founder of Ariel Investments, the nations’ largest Black-owned asset management firm; and a slew of venture capital firms.
“Our work is rebuilding Black Wall Street around technology, entrepreneurship, business and capital … building the infrastructure for Black wealth creation,” said Randy Wiggins, a venture partner at venture capital firm Atento Capital and managing director of Build in Tulsa, a network of business leaders invested in rebuilding Tulsa.
That work, Wiggins said, involves creating a pipeline for Black entrepreneurs — offering assistance and guidance from business ideation to execution.
A fairly recent program, Build in Tulsa was launched in 2020. But there’s already a success story, Wiggins said. A minority-owned startup called Boddle Learning, an online math teaching program for kindergarten through sixth grade, has ballooned to 375,000 registered students on its platform since the business launched in 2018, Wiggins said.
Edna Martinson, who founded Boddle with her husband Clarence Tan, said Tulsa was an ideal place to launch their business.
“We fell in love,” Martinson said about Tulsa when the couple visited in 2020. Martinson, who emigrated from Uganda when she was 16 and settled with family in Missouri, had never been to Oklahoma before and said she knew little about the city’s history. She said she’s been absorbing as much as she can about Tulsa’s past and was thrilled to find “incredible people that are so driven towards building this community and also just supporting each other.”
The low cost of living relative to tech hubs around the country was also attractive to Martinson. “I can build a company … without going broke,” she said.
Tulsa is also luring young professionals with the Tulsa Remote program by offering remote workers and those willing to relocate $10,000 grants and community-building opportunities. Perhaps making relocation even more tempting: the median home price in Tulsa is $208,000 as of August, according to real estate site, Redfin. According to Tulsa Remote’s organizers, the program which launched in November 2018, has attracted nearly 1,000 remote workers to relocate to the city for a year. More than 90% of participants have chosen to stay longer than a year.
There is also the Holberton School, a computer science program with campuses around the world, which recently opened a campus in Tulsa. Holberten students typically range in age from 18-58 according to the school’s website.
The campus “provides opportunities into the software and engineering career fields, that weren’t previously available,” said Libby Ediger, executive director of Holberton School Tulsa.
The school addresses the biggest barrier to completing a college education – tuition – by allowing students to pay a percentage of their future income after completing school.
And then there is Tulsa Innovation Labs, a tech-oriented economic and workforce development organization.
“Our mandate is to establish Tulsa as an inclusive tech hub,” said Nick Lalla, co-founder and managing director.
Tulsa Innovation Labs focuses on three verticals uniquely suitable for Tulsa, Lalla said — virtual health, energy tech and advanced aerial mobility drones.
By focusing on those sectors, “we can create a tech niche for Tulsa that expands opportunities, especially for our Native and Black communities. The economic opportunities we’re pursuing, aren’t in Silicon Valley. They’re not in New York City. They are unique to the heartland and Tulsa,” Lalla told ABC News.
Another case for reparations
Others looking into ways to revitalize the Black community in Tulsa say reparations must be part of the equation.
“Land and cash,” are what is owed, said Dr. James Thompson, associate dean of Austin Peay State University’s Eriksson College of Education.
Thompson is one of the creators behind a reparations proposal for Tulsa massacre victims and their descendants.
A call for reparations in wake of the Tulsa Massacre goes back as far as 1997 when a then-established “Tulsa Race Riot Commission” recommended direct payment of reparations be made to “riot” survivors and their descendants, according to Human Rights Watch.
Earlier this year, the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act was introduced in Congress to provide economic restitution to victims and their descendants. There’s been no movement with the legislation since it was brought to the House in May.
Establishing a tech-and-business hub is “fine, that’s good,” Thompson told ABC News. “But who is it going to benefit in the long run?” he asked.
Thompson said building startups and technology in Tulsa is great for philanthropists, investors and business people.
But “to level the playing field there needs to be more resources allocated to Black and brown people of the Greenwood district,” Thompson said.
For everyday folks in Tulsa, many struggling with the basics in life, “mental health … employability … housing and environmental issues,” all need to be addressed, he said.
What Tulsa was and what it can become
Despite differences on how to rebuild Black Wall Street, the attention from business and tech leaders is not likely to wane anytime soon.
“We have opened an office [in Tulsa], and we spend 50% of our time there. Tulsa is our HQ2,” said Brian Brackeen of Lightship Capital, a venture capital company focused on underrepresented founders. “We are big believers in Tulsa and we are looking forward to making 15 investments there over the next three years.”
There have been at least 209 Black-owned companies that have been founded and/or supported (through programming, funding or other resources) in the Tulsa ecosystem, according to data from four programs involved in the effort to revitaize Tulsa: Lightship Bootcamp, a Build in Tulsa accelerator partner; Act Tulsa, another Build in Tulsa accelerator partner; Tulsa Emerging 100, an initiative to prepare underrepresented entrepreneurs to launch and grow 100-plus Tulsa-based businesses; and Mortar Tulsa, a 15-week entrepreneurship course for existing and emerging entrepreneurs.
The question remains: How has that growth benefited Tulsa’s Black community?
Because many of these initiatives are relatively new, the benefit to the overall Black community of Tulsa in terms of job creation, significantly boosting homewonership and building Black wealth, remains to be seen.
For now, some involved with rebuilding Black Wall Street say the mission for them is more personal.
For Wiggins, of Atento Capital, Tulsa represents “the ingenuity of black Americans,” he said, built amid lynching, Jim Crow “and all of the barriers stacked against Black people.”
He said, he also often wonders, as a Black man in business, what the possibilities would have been for the Greenwood district, and perhaps the economic state of African Americans, if Tulsa hadn’t been destroyed.
“That’s what drives me every day when I wake up,” Wiggins said. “Success looks like Black entrepreneurs from across America, who have the ability to dream, they’re not limited by their background. They’re not limited by their color. They’re not limited by their social class. They’re only limited by their ability to dream and their ability to execute.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the name of Atento Capital and to correctly identify Randy Wiggins as a venture partner at Atento Capital.
— to abcnews.go.com