In a century-old family story about a teenage aunt who enjoyed driving her luxury car on the Tulsa streetcar tracks, Kristi Williams still relishes a tiny, lingering taste of how life could have been different for all black Americans afterward. slavery.
On Monday, the Tulsans commemorate the 100th anniversary of a two-day assault by armed white men on the thriving black community of Tulsa in Greenwood, known nationwide as Black Wall Street, drawing attention to an era murderous mob assaults on black communities that official history long suppressed.
But Williams, and other descendants of the freed black people enslaved by Native American nations who once owned much of the land under Tulsa, say there’s another part of Black Wall Street history that more Americans must know.
It is one that has important lessons for contemporary racial issues in the United States, including the long debated question of reparations, say descendants and historians.
That part of the story: where much of the seed money that made the Black Wall Street boom came from.
Unlike black Americans across the country after slavery, Williams’ ancestors and thousands of other black members of Native American nations who owned slaves freed after the war “had land,” says Williams, a community activist from Tulsa. . “They had the opportunity to build a house on this land, to cultivate this land, and they were rich with their crops.”
“And that was huge – a great opportunity and you think it’s going to last for generations to come. I can leave this land to my children, and they can leave this land to their children, ”said Williams, whose ancestor became a slave. worker for justice of the Supreme Tribal Court of Muscogee Creek after slavery.
In fact, Alaina E. Roberts, Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, writes in her book “I’ve Always Been Here: Black Freedom on Native Lands”, freed slaves from five Native American nations “became the only people of African descent in the world receive what could be considered reparations for their large-scale enslavement.
Why it happened in the territory that became Oklahoma, and not the rest of the slave south: The U.S. government imposed stricter conditions for reconstruction on the slave-owning Native American nations who had completely withdrawn. or partially allied with the Confederation than in the Southern States.
While US authorities quickly broke General William T. Sherman’s famous Special Order # 15, providing 40 acres to every formerly enslaved family after the Civil War, US treaties forced five slave-owning tribes – the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Muscogee Creek and Seminoles – to share tribal lands and other resources and rights with freed blacks who had been enslaved.
In 1860, about 14% of the total population of this tribal territory in the future state of Oklahoma were blacks enslaved by members of the tribe. After the Civil War, black tribal freedmen held millions of acres in common with other tribesmen and later in large individual assignments.
The difference that has made is “untold,” Roberts said in an interview. “The assignments really gave them upward mobility that other blacks did not have in most of the United States.”
Financial stability enabled black Amerindian freedoms to start businesses, farms, and ranches, and helped spawn Black Wall Street and thriving black communities in the future state of Oklahoma. The prosperity of these communities – many of which are long gone – “drew black African Americans from the South, made them a black mecca,” says Roberts. Black Wall Street alone had around 200 companies.
Meeting the black tribal freedmen in the flourishing black town of Boley in 1905, Booker T. Washington wrote with admiration of a community “which must demonstrate the rights of the Negro, not only as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.
And while some tribes have reportedly given their black members some of the worst, rockiest, and non-mineable lands, this is often where drillers hit oil from the early years of the 20th century, before the state Indian Territory changed to Oklahoma in 1907. For a time this made the Tulsa region the largest oil producer in the world.
For Eli Grayson, another descendant of Muscogee Creek Black Freedmen, any story that attempts to tell the story of Black Wall Street without telling the story of the Black Indian Freedmen and their land is a flop.
“They don’t understand what caused the wealth, the foundation of wealth,” says Grayson.
Oil wealth, in addition to helping put the turmoil and boom in Tulsa’s black-owned Greenwood business district, made fortunes for a few Freedpeople who made headlines in the United States. . This included Sarah Rector, 11, a Muscogee Creek girl hailed as “the richest girl of color in the world” by newspapers of the time. His oil fortune caught the attention of Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois, who stepped in to verify that Rector’s white guardian was not looting his money.
The richness of tribal attribution also gave rise to the Williams family story of Great Aunt Janie, “who learned to drive by passing behind the streetcar lines” in Tulsa, with her parents in the car, Williams’ uncle, 67. old Samuel Morgan, recounted with a laugh.
“It was really trendy, because it was one of the cars that had four windows that rolled all the way up,” Morgan said.
Little of this black wealth remains today.
In May 1921, 100 years ago this month, then-teenage Aunt Janie had to flee Greenwood’s Dreamland Cinema as white mobs burned Black Wall Street to the ground, killing dozens or hundreds – no one did. knows – and leaving Greenwood empty ruin populated with charred corpses.
Black freedmen and many other Native American citizens quickly lost land and money to unscrupulous or reckless white guardians imposed on them, due to property taxes, white scams, accidents, policies and racist laws, business mistakes or bad luck. For Aunt Janie, all the family knows today is a vague story of an oil well on her land catching fire.
Williams, Grayson, and other descendants of freed black Indians today walk past the places in Tulsa that the family history says previously belonged to them: 51st Street. The grounds of Oral Roberts University. Mingo Park.
It’s yet another lesson Greenwood of Tulsa has for the rest of the United States, says William A. Darity Jr., a leading repair researcher and writer at Duke University.
Had freed blacks obtained reparations after the Civil War, Darity said, assaults like the Tulsa Race Massacre show that it would have taken years of deploying American troops to protect them – given the angry resentment of the Whites to see money in black hands.