TULSA, OK (CBS Newspath) – It’s an American story of prosperity, unthinkable loss, and resurgence. 100 years ago, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District was a beacon of wealth and development for African Americans, but it was wiped away by racial violence in a matter of hours. “You have more than 30 restaurants. You have clothing stores, hardware stores, a photography studio,” says Scott Ellsworth, historian and author of “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.”
The area known as Black Wall Street in the early 1900s was home to more than 200 Black-owned businesses. Among them, the Dreamland Theatre and the Williams Confectionery owned by Loula Williams, CBS News’ Danya Bacchus’s great-great-grandmother.
Loula’s husband, John Wesley Williams, owned an auto garage and chauffeur company. John, Loula, and their son W.D. were the first Black Tulsans to own a car. “They were Greenwood royalty. They were one of the great leading families of the city,” says Ellsworth.
According to Ellsworth, “This was a place where African Americans leaving the Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, Tennessee, came to get the boot of white supremacy off their throats.””
But in Oklahoma, the Ku Klux Klan was growing in force, and as Black Wall Street thrived, so did white supremacy. “That jealousy of the economic success, which was just a part of what ultimately happens in Greenwood,” says Michelle Place, the executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.
A seemingly innocent incident on an elevator between a Black man and a White woman on May 30th, 1921, set off a devastating chain of events. “He could have stumbled, fallen into her, grabbed her arm,” says Place. “The story becomes exaggerated further, he had attacked her. The truth of the matter is, we don’t know exactly what happened.”
On May 31st, a white mob gathered at the courthouse where the man was held and so did groups of Black men from Greenwood, trying to prevent a lynching. “A gun is discharged. All hell breaks loose,” says Place.
The angry mobs then attacked Black Wall Street. They burned and looted homes and businesses. More than 35 blocks were destroyed, and thousands were left homeless. Those 18 hours would become one of the nation’s deadliest acts of racial violence.
On Monday, May 31st, Gayle King will host a CBS News Special: Tulsa 1921 An American Tragedy. The prime-time special airs at 10/9 central on CBS.