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Greenwood, Oklahoma is for dreamers and doers

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Greenwood, Oklahoma is for dreamers and doers
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When I arrived in Tulsa for the first time, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but after having breathed the air, eaten the food, and met its people, I’ve come to know and love the sacred Greenwood District.

While only a cherished few survivors of the Tulsa Massacre are still alive today, the ubiquitous spirit which once thrived here continues to breathe life into not only its people but in the air itself. It’s as if you can feel the whispering winds of the giants who once walked these hallowed grounds.

Their descendants have carried on a legacy born out of creative invention, uncompromising Blackness, and communal support – not by whimsical and wishful words – but by collaborative and intentional action.

Nehemiah Frank, Founder of The Black Wall Street Times. Photo courtesy of TBWST

As a first time visitor to the sacred land of Greenwood, I was careful to step around the many implanted plaques on the sidewalk, frequently taking in a deep breath to not only sight-see but experience the culture and touch it with my hands.

While I walked the streets, these very hands shook others who have continued to preserve and further the unprecedented legacy established by brilliant Black men and women who – only two generations removed from enslavement – planted seeds in Greenwood that continues to spread plentifully inside and out of the 918.

As I looked down to read a plaque, it just so happened to be Dreamland Theater, a place where Black folks could go to expand their imagination and be captivated by the fantastical.

Photo courtesy of The Black Wall Street Times

The Greenwood District offers a glimpse into that shared creativity and generational connective tissue that continues to heal the many scars left over by a racist white mob who slaughtered men, women, and children fueled by white power, ungodly rage, and soulless immorality.

When the bombs dropped in Greenwood, Black cities across the US felt the aftershocks as God’s earth rumbled beneath our feet. The looming danger we would all feel was just behind the rising smoke-filled streets.

Greenwood is the story of America

Though it was Greenwood which was destroyed by bombs and bullets, as we look across the US, what land can we step on which has not been gentrified, burned to the ground, or displaced by “urban renewal?”

Whether Rosewood, Florida, Compton, California, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Charlotte, North Carolina, up and down and across this nation, racist white men have destroyed our neighborhoods without regard to those who created life, opportunity, and legacy for their people.

Yet, my time in Tulsa was far from a solo mission. Navigated by our founder and descendant of the massacre, Nehemiah Frank, I was also joined by many Black creatives and entrepreneurs as a part of an inaugural event put on by Forbes magazine.

In their impactful For(bes) The Culture (FTC) series, events were curated by Director of Culture & Community at Forbes and the founder of FTC, Rashaad Lambert. While speaking about his vision, Lambert mentioned he was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a city also scarred by racial hatred.

Aerial view of smoldering rubble where some 60 homes were destroyed by fire after a shootout and bombing by police at the Black liberation group MOVE’s house in West Philadelphia . Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police laid siege to MOVE’s Osage Avenue home, following a violent confrontation between law enforcement and members of the Black liberation group. Police, with approval from city officials, dropped a bomb on the house and allowed the resulting blaze to burn out of control. The fire killed 11 MOVE members, including five children, and destroyed more than 60 homes in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood.

The story of death, destruction and displacement is a uniquely Black experience.

The fact that Lambert brought so many Black folks from across the country speaks to the unified trauma we’ve all shared and the ancestral dedication to right the wrongs we never committed.

There were many creatives I met who also live in L.A. According to the L.A. Times, in 1944 the Federal-Aid Highway Act allocated funds for 1,938 miles of freeways in California. City planners used the opportunity, with full federal support, to obliterate as much as possible the casual mingling of the races.

Officials justified these actions as “slum clearance”— intended to upgrade the city’s supposedly crumbling housing stock. But their racially malign intent was obvious, laid bare when officials moved the Santa Monica Freeway so that it ran directly through the stately African American middle class neighborhood of Sugar Hill — anything but a slum — wiping it off the map.

The racist history of America’s interstate highway boom – The Los Angeles Times, photo circa 1950

In my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, for nearly 80 years, the land now occupied by the Government Center in Uptown was once a thriving predominantly Black community. In the late 1860s, recently-emancipated slaves gathered in the neighborhood, known colloquially as “Logtown” before it was a considered a neighborhood.

Over the years the community would become a self-sustaining “city within a city” for Charlotte’s Black residents with churches, schools, and businesses.

In the late 1950s, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, along with a Federal program, would ultimately grant the city $1.4M for “Urban Renewal” to repurpose the neighborhood for office and industrial buildings, as well as a government center. The program of displacing families and businesses began in the 1960s and continued for a decade, and once it was complete, more than 1,000 homes and 216 businesses were demolished. Our then-mayor even got a photo opp of the dismantling.

Credit: Charlotte Observer
February 1970: A bulldozer pushes over the first house in Brooklyn, an old Charlotte neighborhood, to make way for urban renewal.

Across these United States, history proves nothing strengthens white unity quite like Black division. So when I met the people of Greenwood, and also the many Black folks who came to connect and collaborate with Forbes, it felt we all shared a common story, a common purpose.

They are my people as much as I am theirs. Victors who refuse to live as victims, steadily ascending and working with each other to make tomorrow better than today.

The revolutionary spirit that lives in Greenwood lives in Charlotte. It lives in Durham, North Carolina, which had its own rich legacy of Black Wall Street. It’s why so many of us came to see it, it’s why so many others have stayed to see it through, and it’s also why I can’t wait to go back to Greenwood.

Photo courtesy The Black Wall Street Times

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