Examining the Legacy of Tulsa's Black Wall Street and Its Impact Today

Learn about the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, how Black-owned businesses were lost, how the community rebuilt despite challenging odds, and what is being done to help Black-owned businesses today.

Air Date: June 1, 2021

Moderator: Rick Wade, Senior Vice President, Strategic Alliances and Outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Featured Guests: Latricia Boone, Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Ken L. Harris, Ph.D, President and CEO, National Business League, Danny Glover, Actor and Activist, Antwaun Griffin, Chief of Staff, U.S. Small Business Administration, Michael S. Neal, President and CEO, Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, Robert L. Greene, President and CEO, National Association of Investment Companies, Adger Cowans, Photographer, Painter, and Producer, Kim D. Saunders, Co-Managing Director, Legacy Two Advisors, Tom Sullivan, VP, Small Business Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Frederick Williams, Screenwriter

June 1, 2021, marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. A century ago, a mob attacked the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was then known as “Black Wall Street.”

Black Wall Street was one of the most successful African-American communities in the United States at the time. Black entrepreneurs had created a community of attorneys, real estate agents, doctors, and other small businesses that made the area self-sustaining and prosperous. White residents’ resentment of Black economic success and a racially hostile climate eventually led to the 1921 massacre, which left 35 square blocks burned to the ground and 39 people dead.

Today, the Tulsa Race Massacre serves as a reminder of the troubled history of American race relations, but more importantly, it shows the potential and power of Black-owned businesses. The Greenwood District’s pioneering Black entrepreneurs rebuilt the community over the years, and today the area serves as a business, educational, recreational, cultural, and entertainment hub.

Here are three important takeaways from a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce panel discussion on the history and legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and what it means for entrepreneurs of color in 2021.

The Success of Tulsa’s Black Business Community Must Be Shared and Celebrated

Most of the discourse around the Tulsa race massacre revolves around the destruction of property and loss of life due to the systematic racism in America. Because this tragic event was largely ignored in history, so were the success stories of the Black entrepreneurs who made Tulsa so prosperous.

These powerful entrepreneurs inspired screenwriter Frederick Williams to tell their story in the film “Heroes of Black Wall Street.”

“Just think if they hadn't had a conspiracy of silence after it happened; the officials in Oklahoma and throughout the country [who] buried it,” said Williams. “What they were burying was the atrocity of the killings. But in doing that, they also buried these very successful Black businesses…it may have made a big difference in how our kids view themselves.”

“That's the importance of Heroes of Black Wall Street,” Williams continued. “It shows that not only did we have outstanding Black businessmen and women in 1921, we got them in 2021. And there's a connection that we have to make.”

Education on the Capital Continuum Is Key to Recreating the Success of Black Wall Street

The entrepreneurial success of Tulsa is a powerful lesson in the potential for Black businesses. However, the lack of education around starting a business plagues communities of color and needs to be addressed.

“If you look at virtually every community of color, particularly the African-American but also the Latino community within the U.S., there's no understanding of where to get capital,” said Robert Greene, president and CEO of the National Association of Investment Companies. “You're not likely to get even a loan when you first start the business because there's no equity base there.”

“What we need to really teach people in schools — whether in a high school, [a] community college or whether it's required learning in undergrad — is … the capital continuum,” Greene added.

The Government Must Invest in the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs of Color

Education must not only be readily available for those who want to start a business, but for children who will be the future generation of the economy, too. Antwaun Griffin, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Small Business Administration, says the SBA has been creating programs to address the need for these resources.

“We're working across the government to build programs — both in education and entrepreneurial education — particularly here at the SBA, through our district offices and small business development centers, women-owned business centers that are in business opportunity centers, to help children and young entrepreneurs grow, learn and gain the skills they'll need to succeed,” said Griffin. “Not only does it help to create more entrepreneurs of color from the next generation, but it'll allow current innovators to know that they have a government supporting them and their families.”

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