Kezia M. Williams and her many apprentices stand proudly with their black power fist held high in the sky on Greenwood Avenue in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma — the site and birthplace for Black entrepreneurship in America and the space that Booker T. Washington coined “the Negro Wall Street of America” now known as the Black Wall Street.
Published 07/29/2019 | Reading Time 3 min 21 sec
By Nehemiah D. Frank
Black women and men huddled tightly together in a circle, surrounded by photographs of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors. Tears of joy and a sense of accomplishment streamed down some of their faces. They stood proudly on the hallowed grounds of their ancestors, who built and lived on these lands. Their black images, mirrored on the glass in the frames — as reflections — some 98 years later, symbolizing a sense of rebirth of black entrepreneurship for the Greenwood District.
Greenwood is home of America’s original Black Wall Street, a majority-black district that once boasted 36 square blocks of black excellence and prosperity. Their community was the prime example of a healthy black ecosystem full of doctors, lawyers, hospitals, pilots, teachers, and a plethora of business owners — all black.
Today, they seek to recreate that through their entrepreneurial journey.
Once destroyed by a white mob in 1921, the community showed resilience by rebuilding. Then, like in most other American cities, black entrepreneurs experienced a loss in business due to a variety of variables: urban renewal, market changes, redlining, and discrimination in banking and development deals. The list of adverse impacts and systemic issues goes on.
Nevertheless, the tight-nit-group gathered not in sorrow but with a new sense of collective pride. These entrepreneurs are the first black business owners to graduate the Black UpStart boot camp in the historic Greenwood District.
They stand excitedly and surround their entrepreneurial leader, Kezia M. Williams — the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Black UpStart.
The Black UpStart is a rapidly growing organization that teaches aspiring black entrepreneurs how to start a successful and profitable business through an intense, culturally-relevant popup school.
As they huddle, they chant positive self-affirmations to pump and build one another up, reminding each other of their individual and collective greatness.
They too are Black Wall Street.
[Photo by Christopher Creese]
Philanthropist George Kaiser and Entrepreneurial Expert Kezia M. Williams
For the past three weekends of July, the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) and Tulsa Economic Development Corporation (TEDC) partnered in conjunction with the Black UpStart to train 18 determined black entrepreneurs in Tulsa.
Each apprentice came with their own set of experiences, some knowing more than others. But all students were open to learning from Williams and each other.
Sunday was pitch and graduation day. Tulsans of every color showed up to celebrate the rebirth of black entrepreneurship on Black Wall Street. Hundreds of spectators filled the Greenwood Cultural Center, which lies in the heart of Greenwood, to listen to the new graduates’ pitches.
“I have a plant-based food truck I’m bringing to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I quit eating meat about three years ago. When I did, there was nothing out there but salad and french fries. We took the meat out but left the flavor in. The one thing people said they couldn’t give up is cheese.” Charles Brice explained.
Charles is the founder and owner of RevvSoul, a plant-based food truck and catering service. Currently, Charles and his wife service out of their restaurant located at the Mother Road Market just east of the Pearl District on Route 66. He’s also a graduate of the Black UpStart boot camp.
[Photo by Christopher Creese]
Charles was inspired to start his organic food service after discovering that he had high cholesterol and blood pressure from a doctors visit.
“He told me that I needed to start taking care of myself. When I started looking into it, I learned that a lot of it comes from the meats that we eat. So, I went back through, and I tried it out for about six weeks. I took all the meats out of my diet, and my health improved.” The Brices’ plan to start teaching classes on healthy cooking as well for Tulsans who are interested in eating healthier.
[Photo by Christopher Creese]
They went through the pressure and came out as black diamonds.
Many of the entrepreneurs have full-time day jobs and juggled that while going through Ms. Williams’ boot camp on the weekends.
Raquel Jackson, former Miss Black Tulsa said the Black UpStart was a life-changing experience for her. Tears of joy flowed as she received her award from Ms. Williams.
“Where she touched all of our hearts was when she pitched her hair product,” Williams explained. “Raquel told us that she straightened her hair once a month when she was younger and that that was the one time she felt that people saw her and thought that she was beautiful. Raquel’s new hair product is for women with curly hair. Williams believes that Requel’s hair product will change the lives for ladies with naturally tight curls.
The boot camps weren’t easy. Queen Jamia Newsome stayed into midnight working on her pitch, but not without the help of some of her boot camp mates who stayed late one evening to help Jamia tighten her pitch. She ended up earning the first place spot for pitches the very next day. “That’s what happens when you don’t quit on yourself and don’t quit on your dreams,” Willams told Newsome at the graduation ceremony.
Rose Washington, CEO of explained that TEDC and GKFF plan to bring The Black UpStart back to Tulsa soon.
Nehemiah D. Frank is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Black Wall Street Times, an educator, TEDx alum, blogger for EdPost, and Community Advisory Board Member for the Tulsa World.