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Op-ed: From tragedy to triumph: How the spirit of Black Wall Street lives on

by The Black Wall Street Times

From Trey Thaxton:

Trey Thaxton is owner of 19&21, the Greenwood Ave. brand, and creative director for the Fire in Little Africa hip-hop mixtape. (Fire in Little Africa)

I moved to Tulsa when I was 11 years old. I went to middle and high school here and stayed in Oklahoma for college. Despite nearly a decade of education in the state, I never learned about Black Wall Street – the famed community of successful Black-owned businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa – until a stranger visiting town in my mid-twenties asked where it was located.

Unfortunately, the beautiful story of Black entrepreneurship that thrived in early twentieth century Tulsa, and the tragic story of how it was burned to the ground in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre were not things I was taught about in school, even in the city where it happened. These important stories of not just Black, but of American history, were not included in our textbooks or curriculum.

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Years later, I reflected on this and asked: what could I do to help? How could I use my talents to shine a light on Black entrepreneurs and celebrate our history in the process?

Giving birth to 19&21

Using my background in graphic design, I recreated logos of some of the original Greenwood District businesses for Black History Month in 2019. 

But I wanted to continue to share our local history beyond the month of February. Soon after, this passion project became more and 19&21, our store, and Greenwood Ave., our flagship brand, were born.

Now, it’s more than two years later, and the centennial anniversary of the horrific events from 1921 are upon us. Reflecting on this, I realized with 19&21, yes — we’ve sold a lot of shirts and hats — but we’ve also done a lot more.

A brand centered on Black history

Our mission is to celebrate the innovators, the risk-takers and pioneers of the past — the people that built the original Black Wall Street. At the same time, however, we also want to spotlight current Black entrepreneurs in the Tulsa area, showing how they’ve built their businesses and more importantly, why. We want to raise awareness and inspire, to propel the future generation of Black entrepreneurs – helping them to see what is possible, showing them how one day they may carry the torch as a Black business owner in the community. 

We do this through a variety of ways – from our ongoing video series profiling Black entrepreneurs to donating 10 percent of all sales to various projects in North Tulsa, like the Greenwood Cultural Center, the Tulsa Dream Center and the Terrence Crutcher Foundation, among others.

The brand is centered on Black history. Its origin is rooted in the painful memories of the massacre, but also the uplifting stories of the original Black Wall Street entrepreneurs. The history of Tulsa–the events of May 31 – June 1, 1921–and the experience of Black people in America will always be intertwined in what we do. 

More than just a business

But really, in my mind, 19&21 and Greenwood Ave. isn’t just about the past, it’s about the future. To me, Greenwood Ave. is not a place, but a spirit. It’s something you carry with you. It’s something we achieve together. 

It’s why we’ve sold our items not just in North Tulsa, but to buyers in almost every state in the country. 

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It’s why every email I receive, every picture tagged on Facebook or Instagram from our customers means so much to me.

Inspiring Black ownership

It’s why I love seeing our video series shown in classrooms, teaching young students what we’re doing and how someday they could do it too.

Moreover, it’s why we’re excited about partnering with FC Tulsa, our local soccer team, who is wearing our logo on their sleeve this season in remembrance of the tragedy that took place 100 years ago. It’s why 100% of the proceeds from that patch are going to the Terrence Crutcher Foundation. 

Beyond that, it’s why we jumped at the chance to share our story of Black entrepreneurship and history with a wider audience on Facebook’s #BuyBlack Friday Show last holiday season, and we’re humbled to sell out of some stock after the appearance.

For the next generation

It’s why we’ll always celebrate the other Black entrepreneurs who are also innovating, creating and making a difference, like Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, Jayson Mayden, and John Stanton. 

And it’s why we’re excited to host a pop-up this June, featuring not only Greenwood Ave. merchandise, but products from eight other local Black entrepreneurs that exude Black excellence. 

Ultimately, my goal with 19&21 and Greenwood Ave. isn’t to sell millions of dollars’ worth of clothes. My goal is for the next generation of Black kids to realize that ownership is their legacy. My goal is to inspire everyone to pursue their purpose and allow themselves to dream beyond what they think is possible. 

The goal is for everyone to know the history of Greenwood Ave., to ignite meaningful conversations, reclaim history, understand the importance of what happened there in 1921, and for everyone to know what Greenwood Ave. is today – the true spirit of Black entrepreneurship and resilience.  

In short, when Black excellence and ownership becomes the norm and a brand like this that highlights a previously unknown history becomes irrelevant; we win.

Trey Thaxton is Owner of 19&21, Greenwood Ave., and creative director for Fire in Little Africa.

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