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Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood found prosperity after the 1921 massacre. Then the highways arrived.

“The plot to take it over has happened — it just didn’t happen in 1921,” a researcher said of the once-thriving Greenwood district.
Image: Carlos Moreno
Carlos Moreno stands near Interstate 244, which cuts through the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Okla.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

TULSA, Okla. — Carlos Moreno stood on the Archer Street bridge over U.S. Highway 75 in northeast Tulsa, pointing west as he squinted into the sun. Much like the wind on top of the bridge, the traffic underneath was loud, and there was no shade from the May heat. But it’s here, he said, where you can see what was taken.

“Unless you’re actually standing here, you don’t get a sense of the destruction,” said Moreno, an author and graphic designer who moved to Tulsa in the late '90s.

At the end of May, it will be a century since a white mob looted, burned and murdered in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, then known as the Black Wall Street, killing hundreds and displacing thousands more. With the anniversary just days away, many have focused on the violence. But that’s not the full story of Greenwood, nor its end.

The Greenwood District in ruins after the massacre in 1921.Universal History Archive / Getty Images

In his new book set to be released next week, “The Victory of Greenwood,” Moreno explores how the neighborhood had a second renaissance led by Black Tulsans after the massacre, rebuilding even bigger than before. It was not the bloodshed that eventually destroyed most of Greenwood, however; rather, it was this, he said, pointing to the spaghetti of interchanges to the south and the expressway that stretches north.

“Black Tulsa is a happy city. It has new clothes. It is young and gay and strong,” W.E.B. Dubois wrote after a 1926 visit. “Five little years ago, fire and blood and robbery leveled it to the ground. Scars are there, but the city is impudent and noisy. It believes in itself. Thank God for the grit of Black Tulsa.”

By the 1950s and ʼ60s, Greenwood had blossomed into one of the most successful Black neighborhoods in the country. At its height, Black business owners operated 40 grocery stores and dozens of confectionaries across the mixed-use 35-block community.

A view of Greenwood Avenue looking north in 1938.Greenwood Cultural Center / Getty Images
Looking north along Greenwood Avenue, the single block of remaining businesses in Greenwood. Christopher Creese / for NBC News

“And now what do you see?” Moreno asked as he stood above the expressway. “It’s just highways, that’s it. There’s nothing else.”

What remains of the neighborhood’s historic prosperity is one block of Black-owned businesses and the Vernon Chapel AME Church, where many massacre survivors found refuge from the violence, sandwiched between a minor league baseball field and the towering concrete of Interstate 244. To the north, vacant lots and empty buildings mark the once-bustling area the city rezoned for industrial use. Redevelopment has crept up toward Greenwood from downtown over the decades, and a recent boom in the city’s arts district — including upscale restaurants, posh bars and galleries — has radically reshaped what was once considered west Greenwood.

“These new developments, they’re just squeezing us like a python,” said Freeman Culver III, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.

As the Biden administration seeks to address institutionalized racism, federal officials are talking more openly about how the government has for generations used redlining, urban renewal and eminent domain to drastically tip the scales against people of color. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has acknowledged how federally funded highways have sliced through neighborhoods of color, displacing residents and slashing the home values of those who managed to remain.

Here in Greenwood, residents say they were robbed twice: in 1921 and again 50 years later when eminent domain took their homes. Greenwood’s current and former residents are still calling for justice, whether through equity in property ownership, or the removal of the highways. Many say they still don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to the fate of what was once the country’s most culturally vibrant and financially successful Black neighborhood.

Culver said that in 2013 when Forbes called Tulsa the best place for young entrepreneurs, he didn't think the magazine was talking about Black entrepreneurs, many of whom lack the capital and connections to compete. The same goes for the arts district, which Culver and others note was developed largely through tax incentives and loans that mostly went to white developers. He said outside of the single remaining block of Greenwood businesses, there are only four Black property owners in the downtown area, one of which is the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.

Tulsa’s Black residents have faced displacement and a loss of property and wealth that has stretched across generations. Most live outside of Greenwood in north Tulsa, while the wealthier downtown remains largely white. Half of white Tulsans own their homes, compared to barely more than a third of Black Tulsans. White households have a median income $20,000 higher than the average Black family.

Freeman Culver III, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said few Black business owners remain in downtown Tulsa. Christopher Creese / for NBC News

“The plot to take it over has happened — it just didn’t happen in 1921,” said Sean Thomas, a doctoral candidate at Oklahoma State University’s geography department. “And it didn’t happen via the massacre — it happened over time through just urban renewal and regular processes.”

Thomas is releasing an app this month that shows the original land plots of the massacre’s victims laid out over a map of the neighborhood. He plans to turn over all of his digitized research to the Tulsa County Clerk’s Office, which he hopes will add in any future discussions about equity and reparations.

'Robbed of that opportunity'

Many historians, researchers and locals now agree that the 1921 race massacre wasn’t a spontaneous event sparked by an interaction between a young Black man and a white woman. The mass destruction, the planes loaded with fire bombs, the city ordinances that hampered rebuilding efforts, and the internment camps all took time to put in place.

The city wanted to raze much of what remained of Greenwood to build a train depot and move the area’s residents north, but a lawsuit stopped the plan. By December 1921, more than half of the more than 1,200 homes destroyed were in some form of reconstruction or repair, according to the Red Cross.

Mabel Little’s beauty salon was destroyed during the massacre, along with her home. She left Oklahoma and forged a successful career as an inspector and supervisor for Lockheed Martin in California during World War II, then returned to Greenwood in the 1950s when it was booming. She rebuilt her business and home — only to have them seized and leveled around 1970 under eminent domain to build the expressway.

“I’m heartbroken that I didn’t get the opportunity to participate in that community,” said Jennifer King, Little’s great niece, who is head of marketing for a Dallas law firm.

In the 1950s, Greenwood’s population was pushing 10,000. Through the many auto garages, restaurants, doctor’s offices and beauty salons like Little’s, Black residents had firmly rebuilt much of the generational wealth the massacre had threatened.

A parade on the rebuilt Greenwood Avenue in the 1930s or 1940s.Greenwood Cultural Center / Getty Images

“My generation, my mom’s generation, are robbed of that opportunity,” King said. One of her great aunts ran a successful restaurant — known for its smothered chicken, which happens to be King’s favorite recipe — that was destroyed in the massacre. “Had things been different, I’d be making smothered chicken in Tulsa.”

Making the future equitable

Greenwood’s residents have been calling for reparations for generations.

"Urban renewal not only took away our property, but something else more important — our black unity, our pride, our sense of achievement and history,” 1921 survivor and longtime Tulsa elementary school teacher Jobie Holderness told historian Eddie Faye Gates for her 1997 book “They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa.”

“We need to regain that," Holderness said.

Burlinda Radney, a Tulsa realtor, sees what happened in 1921 as an extension of a larger movement to rob Black families of generational wealth and property — one that continues today in Greenwood, she said, where the neighborhood’s families and their descendants have little input on the community’s future.

Burlinda Radney, a realtor in Tulsa, believes the city needs to prioritize equity in redeveloping Greenwood. Christopher Creese / for NBC News

Radney said Black entrepreneurs with ties to Greenwood want to be a part of the growth happening here, as the city seeks to fill land and buildings that have long sat vacant. But if racial equity isn’t considered in the redevelopment, she said, then Black residents will continue to lose out on leases to the wealthy and well-connected. State law requires decisions around incentives and loans to be race-neutral.

Most of what remains of Greenwood’s 35 blocks is owned by the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Development Authority. Where those 40 grocery stores once operated, zero remain. The neighborhood’s children were forced to leave when their families’ homes were demolished, so what used to be Frederick Douglass Elementary School has become a police substation.

The remnants of a former house in the Greenwood district.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

In a lawsuit filed against the city and the development authority, among others, on behalf of several residents of Greenwood, Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons argues that the lack of schools, access to nutritious food, jobs and housing all play a part in the lost property value. That reflects the city’s unwillingness to provide Greenwood — as well as north Tulsa, where the majority of Tulsa’s Black residents live — with adequate support for growth, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit details evidence that officials with the city of Tulsa, including police, participated in the violence of 1921 and connects that to the city’s use of the massacre as a way to promote tourism, which resulted “in their unjust enrichment at the expense of these communities and worsened the racial disparities including the wealth divide.”

The city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Redevelopment Authority declined to comment on the lawsuit or speak on equity in the redevelopment plans.

'They’re still taking'

When it comes to Greenwood’s future, some here think I-244 — which runs east-west and sits on top of what were once famous cultural hubs, like the Dreamland Theater — should be lowered to a thoroughfare. Others think it should be buried in a tunnel so that the property on top provides new real estate. Many also want to see U.S. 75, which sliced off most of the eastern edge and northern stretch of Greenwood, removed.

The Vernon Chapel AME Church on the other side of the I-244 overpass that divides Greenwood.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

U.S. 75 gave Tulsa a chance to recruit the young, mostly white professionals of the 1970s who wanted an easy way out of downtown to the suburbs. Returning the land wouldn’t just lead to new prosperity for Greenwood and its residents, Radney said; it could also lead to other forms of healing, like turning the police substation back into a school.

“Frederick Douglass Elementary being a police substation, that’s an affront to me,” she said. “The city’s will is what we’re looking at today.”

As Moreno, the author, finished his walk around the neighborhood recently, he stopped at the numerous plaques in the sidewalk along Greenwood Avenue, commemorating the people and businesses lost over the last century. There’s one at the foot of a small hill where Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was shot in front of his home as he peacefully surrendered in 1921, once lived. Today, it’s part of Oklahoma State University’s Tulsa campus.

A stone's throw away, another commemorates the Dreamland Theater, where residents once enjoyed musicals and revues.

Moreno stopped to wipe pine tree needles off the Dreamland Theater plaque, which today sits in front of a berm on the interstate. The leases have already been signed in the gentrified arts district, but Moreno wonders why the land across I-244 in northern Greenwood, where empty lots and abandoned factories remain, isn’t given back to the community it was taken from.

“They’re still taking,” Moreno said. “You have this through-line since the highway program where Greenwood has no say in what happens to its own land.”

CORRECTION (May 26, 2021, 10:35 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misidentified one of the highways that runs through Greenwood. It is U.S. Highway 75, not Interstate 75.