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What Really Caused the Destruction of Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’

What happened after the destruction of Greenwood, once home to some of the wealthiest African Americans in the US.

To this day, Greenwood represents something different in the popular imagination depending who you talk to: evidence of Black progress in the post-Reconstruction era, symbol of a Black Gilded Agemodel for cooperative economics and Black capitalism — or also, proof of the inevitability of anti-Black violence, another urban renewal failure, another victim of the federal highway system; or, all of the above.

Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Luckerson about the themes covered in his book, what the public often gets wrong about Black Wall Street, and the role of local and federal policies in devastating this once illustrious Black community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Which disaster would you say did the most harm to Greenwood: the massacre, urban renewal, or the highway?

After the race massacre, we have this really powerful story about resiliency and Black people rebuilding, which is true. This community was devastated with more than 1,200 homes and businesses destroyed, but they were able to rebuild incredibly quickly. By that Christmas there were hundreds of structures back up in the neighborhood. But because they had to rebuild so fast, a lot of the structures were poorly made, so they became dilapidated pretty fast. I looked up Census tract records in the 1940s and saw how the vast majority of Greenwood properties had been built right after 1921, many of them not having indoor plumbing or basic amenities. You get to the ‘60s and ‘70s and urban renewal comes through. Now we have this community where lots of structures are still around, but in really bad need of repair. They are designated as blighted by the urban renewal authority, and so there's really a direct connection between those two events. I would say the massacre was more devastating in the short term, and urban renewal more devastating in the long term.

Did Greenwood survivors have to rebuild from scratch, or was there some level of government assistance?

I don't know if shocking is the right word, but it was telling to discover how little the city wanted to help. The city had this perspective that they were too proud to ask for help. You have a huge disaster like that, one of the first thoughts is: Can we get outside aid from other parts of the country? But I'm told [Tulsa officials] actually turned it down — literally sent checks back to Chicago and other places that were offering aid to Greenwood, with this sort of mentality that, ‘We're a proud city, we can fix our own mess.’