In Tulsa, Oklahoma, visionaries and entrepreneurs are teaming up with city agencies to undo the terrible damage done in 1921.
The Greenwood neighborhood in North Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street, was an affluent African-American community with thriving local businesses, two newspapers, churches and well-known physicians, lawyers, realtors and other professionals. It was a community with so much potential for Black generational wealth it took years to build. But on June 1, 1921, 35 city blocks of Black-owned businesses and homes were destroyed in less than 24 hours. Mobs of white residents, some of whom had been deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents in response to the alleged (and fictitious) assault of a young white woman by a young Black man.
“They called it the Tulsa Race Riot because, if something is termed a riot, the local authorities bear no responsibility,” says Tyrance Billingsley II. Today, historians agree that the term “massacre” more accurately describes what happened.
But after 1921, selective amnesia set in, and the tragic event was omitted from local, state, and national histories. Finally, in 2001, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act was passed into law, but stopped short of reparations. A city park called the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was established; later, Greenwood was renamed the Greenwood Historical District. But the Greenwood neighborhood had been destroyed physically and spiritually: after Black Wall Street was wiped out, the resources to build it back were gone.
Today, individuals and the city and are looking backward and forward in an attempt to re-start what was so violently stopped in 1921.
Arthur Jackson, senior vice president of economic development at the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, says, “The long-term effect of what happened in 1921 is that it affected generational wealth. Initiatives including Black Tech Street are trying to bring that back.”
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Billingsley, who was born and raised in Tulsa, has launched Black Tech Street to aid Black entrepreneurs living in the Greenwood Historical District. Its aim: to build an ecosystem that allows for the support of Black entrepreneurs.
“I have always had a passion for technology, as well as a passion for politics,” Billingsley says. “But the innovations that change the world don’t come from politics, they come from entrepreneurship.”
Partners in the goal of growing Black Tech Street are the the Tulsa Authority for Economic Opportunity, a new community and economic development organization charged with growing an economy with opportunity for all Tulsans; international innovation and collaboration agency Second Muse; and 36 Degrees North, a Tulsa agency committed to providing the resources needed to build growing companies and drive economic impact in Tulsa.
“A lot of tech companies, including Microsoft and Lumen Technologies have located branches here,” says Arthur Jackson. “They are actively trying to recruit Black employees, going into schools and so forth.”
“USA BMX has held an annual event here for 20 years,” says Jonathan Long, vice president of the Tulsa Chamber’s division of diversity, equity and inclusion. “It draws in a crowd of 10,000-13,000 per day over the course of 4 days. Now, BMX has moved its headquarters from Arizona to Tulsa, opening February 15. This is providing more jobs.
“We would love to see a sizable shift in Black household income, and to, again, make Tulsa a center for Black wealth.”
This vision is shadowed by the current economic reality in which black founders and entrepreneurs receive less than one percent of venture capital, hold just five CEO roles among Fortune 500 companies, and represent persistently low rates of employment in high-growth sectors, including technology.
In his own back yard, Billingsley intends to reverse that course.
“Technology will undoubtedly play an increasingly outsized role in Tulsa’s future economy — an economy that can, if designed intentionally and inclusively, lead the country in innovation and become a powerful engine of wealth creation for Black entrepreneurs. Ten years from now, Tulsa can be a globally-renowned city known for its Black tech ecosystem — a city in which every Black child has a viable path toward building intergenerational wealth.”
Like many visionaries, he sees a future stretching beyond his home town.
“What I envision for Black Tech Street is that, in the end, it is not confined to Tulsa. Although I hope that, in 20 years, people will want to come to Tulsa because of Black Tech Street, I also hope that its positive effects make a difference far beyond the city.”