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Devin Williams, owner of the popular DW speakeasy on Black Wall Street in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District, has announced his intention to sue Dr. Freeman Culver III, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, over what Williams describes as unethical and potentially illegal business practices.
Speaking with The Black Wall Street Times at his speakeasy, which has been closed for several weeks after his AC unit blew out and the Greenwood Chamber refused to repair it, Devin Williams described payments he was forced to make to the Greenwood Chamber despite not being provided with maintenance and upkeep over the last year, per his contract, along with attempts by Dr. Culver to schedule events at his space without his approval that caused him to lose out on revenue.
Compounding the dispute, Williams also claimed the Greenwood Chamber faces liens and that the buildings are not owned by the Greenwood Chamber, but rather an outside company, and that many of the buildings are in such disrepair that they could be condemned at any moment, potentially displacing current Black Wall Street businesses.
“It’s been my life passion, my work, what I dedicated the past ten years of my life to…restoring Greenwood, coming here and rebuilding,” Devin Williams told The Black Wall Street Times. “Unfortunately, I found that might not be a possible reality anymore down here.”
DW Speakeasy owner Devin Williams accuses Greenwood Chamber of breaking lease agreement
As a kid from Guthrie, Oklahoma, Williams said he came to Tulsa’s Greenwood District after finishing his education in order to make an impact. For over a decade he’s served as CEO of A New Way Counseling Center on Black Wall Street before founding and owning DW Speakeasy beginning in July of 2021. Yet, according to Williams, the years-long maintenance issues and lack of concern from the Greenwood Chamber at his counseling space foreshadowed the experience he would have in trying to open and run his speakeasy.
“My attorney basically told me I have claims, like for instance my AC being off shut my business down. There’s a lawsuit there. But that lawsuit doesn’t uncover embezzlement. It doesn’t cover the scope of what happens here,” Williams added as he asked for help from the community to come forward with information about the Greenwood Chamber’s practices beyond his case.
Signing a five-year lease with the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce in July 2021, Williams wasn’t expecting to enter a battle that would have ramifications for the entire historic district.
Williams’ lease agreement shows a Common Area Utility and Maintenance expense (CAUM) that Black Wall Street tenants are expected to pay monthly in exchange for the Greenwood Chamber handling lighting, landscaping, sprinkler controls; maintenance, repair and replacement of common area pavement, and other repairs in the common area, according to the lease.
“CAM pays constant repairs and maintenance on the buildings for HVAC work, electrician work, roof work, plumbing work, handyman/carpentry work,” Freeman Culver wrote in an email to Black Wall Street tenants.
According to Williams however, the Greenwood Chamber has failed to keep up with maintenance of the common area. Previously, Black Wall Street businesses have complained about how the lack of outdoor lighting makes their street dangerous.
Additionally, Williams described instances in which Freeman Culver would schedule events at his establishment without notifying him, such as events during Juneteenth that interfered with how he had planned to conduct his business. He also shared text exchanges accusing Culver of sending contractors to work on his space without his approval, causing additional costs to his business.
Ultimately, Williams accused Dr. Freeman Culver and the Greenwood Chamber of potentially owing money to outside entities, of not being transparent about who owns the buildings or where grant money goes, on top of the fact that the buildings are allegedly in such disrepair that they could be classified as condemnable. Despite paying his fees, the Greenwood Chamber has not fixed his HVAC system, forcing Williams to close the DW Speakeasy until further notice.
A section of Williams’ lease agreement with the Chamber states “If the whole of the Premises shall be acquired or taken by condemnation proceedings, then this Lease shall cease and terminate as of the date of title vesting in such proceedings.” The text doesn’t include any payouts to tenant business owners.
“Would you give me $200,000 [to invest in a business] if you know that somebody can slip in an event center and it’s not up to code, and the person responsible can’t pay that and the buildings will be condemnable immediately,” Williams said.
“There’s a lot of business owners in these buildings right now who know the AC’s not working, who know the issues are here, who know there’s not any more grants. It’s all been pocketed, who knows where.”
Williams faces lawsuit from construction company
Crucially, Williams said he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket during the construction phase to get his speakeasy up to code and running well. He says he was promised by Culver that investment from the Greenwood Chamber through grants would help offset the construction costs, since Williams was essentially improving the value of the buildings with his buildout. Yet, Williams says that investment never materialized.
And with the continual maintenance and AC issues causing him to close over and over again once he became operational in January 2022, Williams said he couldn’t keep up with the construction costs he owes to a construction company the Greenwood Chamber contracted with to do the work.
Specifically, Patriot Custom Construction, LLC was hired for the DW speakeasy buildout, and they in turned hired a subcontractor, York Mechanical.
Before filing his own lawsuit, Williams is facing a lawsuit against him due to unpaid payments after the Greenwood Chamber allegedly reneged on its promise to provide supporting investment.
Now, York Mechanical is suing Patriot Construction to recoup funds, and Patriot Construction in turn is suing Devin Williams for an unpaid balance of $169,284.64.
“I want to pay Patriot,” Williams told The Black Wall Street Times. “When the deal didn’t go how it was supposed to in regards to non profit historical space investments I didn’t have enough. They were willing to take payments but I kept closing due to the building issues and they lost faith,” he added.
Greenwood Chamber under fire over transparency, accountability concerns
Greenwood Center Ltd. acts as the management company for the businesses on Black Wall Street, while Greenwood Chamber of Commerce is a nonprofit controlling Greenwood Center Ltd. The Chamber has come under fire previously by members of the community for making threats to shut down the street during Juneteenth and for harassing tourists who book tours through an independent organization.
The nonprofit has also taken heat from Tulsa’s only Black city councilor, Vanessa Hall-Harper. She accused it of lacking transparency and accountability after Greenwood Center began trying to evict Tori Tyson of Blowout Hair Studio. Tyson said her family had operated the business at that location on 109 N. Greenwood for 40 years and that she stopped paying rent because it had been continuously raised over the last three years by an amount she called “unfair.”
“This is all about accountability,” Councilor Hall-Harper said in 2020, according to the Tulsa World. “There have been people in this community, so-called leaders, who have failed to answer to the community.”
It was a series of scandals from the Greenwood Chamber that caused the late Sherry Gamble-Smith and Councilor Hall-Harper to form the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, a separate entity that supports Black-owned businesses, initiatives and organizes events in the community to return ownership to the Black community.
“The last remaining business owners that are in this historic area…we’re about to get displaced,” Devin Williams warned.
Williams said he intends to file a series of lawsuits, starting with Greenwood Chamber President Dr. Freeman Culver.
“My first motions will be filed this month with Freeman Culver being the defendant. Others will come after.”
The Black Wall Street Times reached out to Greenwood Chamber President Dr. Freeman Culver III.
“We would like to learn more about the tenant concerns. The tenant wrote the lease with a personal attorney. If the tenant is not satisfied with the lease terms he should have never executed it. We need more specific information. And I think you should have more credible information before you publish it,” Culver told The Black Wall Street Times.