Rebuild ‘Black Wall Street’ as a National Atonement

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On Monday, it will be exactly 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. In an orgy of violence, White Tulsans — aided by elements of the city government — killed dozens or possibly hundreds of their Black neighbors, injured many more, and left 10,000 homeless. Though this was just the largest of many similar outbreaks of anti-Black violence in the late 1910s and early 1920s, it carries a special place in memory, because in addition to the human carnage, it destroyed the country’s most thriving concentration of Black-owned businesses — Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known to many as Black Wall Street.

Black Wall Street came to exist in large part because of the entrepreneurial efforts of O.W. Gurley, a son of freed slaves who established a number of successful retail businesses. Gurley then used his ventures’ earnings to finance many other Black-owned businesses in the Greenwood area. It was a model of how American capitalism ought to work — until it was destroyed. That destruction is emblematic of how the American dream of independent success and self-betterment has too often been dashed on the rocks of racism.

A century later, there have been a few tentative attempts to atone for this bloody past, and awareness of the massacre has grown — for example, the event is now often depicted in popular media. But far more needs to be done. In addition to paying reparations to the few remaining survivors, one idea is to rebuild Black Wall Street itself. A combination of federal and state matching funds and private financing could offer low-interest loans and even equity financing to Black-owned businesses in Greenwood.

That would complement private efforts that are already underway. A group called Dream Tulsa is working to convince Black entrepreneurs and professionals to move to the city, as well as supporting local talent. The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce has raised a bit of private funding to upgrade buildings and storefronts in the historic neighborhood, to create guided tours and to fund new businesses. But it would be government money that would really make the difference here.

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in government support for Black-owned businesses. President Joe Biden redirected a portion of funds from the Paycheck Protection Program to support Black and other minority business owners. And he has pledged billions of dollars for a small business fund that would draw in private matching funds to support these entrepreneurs as well.

Black Americans tend to start businesses at higher rates than other Americans, but they often lack for investment capital. This contributes to greater failure rates among these businesses. A group of Black scholars and policy advisors, writing for the Center for American Progress, recently called on the government to offer more financial support to Black-owned businesses, as one piece of a multi-pronged approach to closing the persistent racial wealth gap.

Rebuilding the Greenwood district of Tulsa as a special economic zone for Black-owned businesses would be a very small but highly visible and symbolic step toward the goal of building Black wealth, while also providing a tangible, lasting demonstration that the city and state want to atone for the original neighborhood’s destruction. It could also serve as a prototype for a more general program of revitalizing historically Black business districts around the country.

The project would require relocating the highway interchanges that currently occupy much of the land where Black Wall Street used to exist. In fact, many Black entrepreneurs returned to the Greenwood area after the massacre, only to be displaced by the coming of Interstate 244 and Oklahoma Route 75. As demonstrated by San Francisco’s removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, and Houston’s plan to convert the gridlocked artery running through its downtown into an elevated park, moving highways out of urban cores can often spur neighborhood renewal.

In fact, a revitalized Black Wall Street could be part of the American urbanist revival that began in the big coastal metros and is now spreading into smaller cities and towns. In their book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” authors James and Deborah Fallows document how towns that successfully resuscitated themselves after the Rust Belt and the Great Recession tended to focus on building thriving, pedestrian-friendly downtown areas. Workers who move to a city want to have a nice place to go out and walk around; Black Wall Street could provide such a place. As the Castro district of San Francisco proves, downtown areas that celebrate resilient minority cultures can provide centers of economic activity while retaining their character.

The city of Tulsa has already shown its determination and willingness to put itself on the map through bold urban projects, creating a $465 million, 100-acre park called Gathering Place that some have labeled the best park in America. Black Wall Street would add a second distinctive attraction to the city’s portfolio. Philanthropists like George Kaiser, who contributed to build Gathering Place, could kick in some money as well.

The crime of the Tulsa Race Massacre can never be undone. But if Tulsa wants — and if the state and federal government and private philanthropists also want — Black Wall Street can be rebuilt even bigger and better than before. It can stand as a monument not just to the evil that was done a century ago, but to America’s determination to be a better country.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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