Watch this space: Notes on my Greenwood talk coming soon

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Thanks to the organizers, speakers, and audience for last night's Ignite Tulsa event. It was a great experience, and I only wish I could have stayed through the entire program -- family needs called me home shortly after I spoke. I'm happy I had the chance to come back to the afterparty and chat with many very interesting folks. More to say about the total Ignite Tulsa experience later.

Someone asked if the source material for my talk is online. A lot of it is already, in past BatesLine entries. I plan to post links to key articles and go into detail on my sources. For now, if you're impatient, Google Greenwood on this site.

When an OSU professor wrote a response to my 2007 column on the Greenwood gap, challenging the factual basis for what I wrote and my conclusions, I responded by detailing my sources, which may be of interest here (this is the original reply, not the edited version that appeared in the paper):

I'm always pleased to know that someone has given one of my columns a close and critical reading, as OSU Political Science Professor J. S. Maloy has done with my column on the rise and fall of the Greenwood district. This aspect of Tulsa history is important but overlooked, so I welcome his interest. I empathize with his disappointment that so little of Greenwood remains. My column was an attempt to use available evidence to explain why things are the way they are.

The issues he raises deserve a detailed and specific discussion: Which level of government is to blame for Greenwood's second destruction; whether Greenwood was rebuilt after the riot and how the reconstruction was funded; whether local officials in 1921 took a free market approach to rebuilding Greenwood; the role of racism in the city's treatment of Greenwood; and whether the free market is to blame for the lack of progress in Greenwood since urban renewal.

I agree with Maloy that what our city has done to Greenwood is a self-inflicted wound. I should have made it more clear that city officials made the decisions to route I-244 through the heart of Greenwood and to bulldoze most of the rest of it in the name of urban renewal. The Federal Government only supplied the funds to carry out the city's plans.

Prof. Maloy expresses doubt that Greenwood was fully restored following the riot. An examination of the sources I used in researching my column will confirm that it was.

He can read for himself the recorded memories of Greenwood residents contained in the books I cited: Black Wall Street, by Hannibal Johnson, and They Came Searching, by Eddie Faye Gates, both residents of Tulsa and active in the community.

He can visit the mapping department of the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG), 201 W. 5th St., Suite 600, and view historical aerial photographs, such as the one from 1951 which ran with my column.

He can go to the 4th floor of Central Library and page through the shelf of Polk City Directories and Cole Cross Reference Directories, dating back to 1911, which list residences and businesses street by street, ordered by house number. With the help of a pre-1960 street map (urban renewal destroyed much of the street grid), he can trace the year-by-year evolution of commercial avenues like Greenwood and Lansing and the district's more residential side streets.

He can explore the Sanborn Fire Maps, which document location, footprint, number of stories, and types of buildings for use in fire insurance risk assessment. They were kept up to date until the early '60s as buildings were built and demolished.

Maps for the entire state are available to cardholders on the Tulsa Library website (http://www.tulsalibrary.org:2048/login?url=http ://sanborn.umi.com).

Select the map set for Tulsa that says 1915-July 1926 (that's a typo -- it's really July 1962), and then take a look at sheets 9, 33, 50, 55, 82, 90, and 91. An earlier map set, dated 1915, will illustrate what Greenwood was like in the years before the riot.

Maloy mentions Tee's Barber Shop, located in one of the handful of Deep Greenwood buildings that were spared from urban renewal. The next time he's there, he should notice the markers in the sidewalk which show where businesses were located before the riot. He'll see that many of the markers contain the words "reopened" and "rebuilt."

If he'll walk to the corner of Greenwood and Archer and look up to the west, he'll see the year "1922" -- a year after the riot -- carved above the name "WILLIAMS BLDG." The plaque in the sidewalk explains that Williams, who also owned the Dreamland Theater across the street, was the first to rebuild all of his properties after the riot.

So if we can agree that Greenwood was fully rebuilt after the riot, the question becomes how.

Maloy is correct that there was very little aid from the government and white charities. It makes it all the more impressive that the African-American community was able to rebuild, but they were determined and they did. African-Americans in other cities raised money to assist Greenwood's reconstruction, and Greenwood's own residents worked, scrimped, saved, provided mutual assistance, and expended sweat equity to rebuild.

Maloy is incorrect in stating that city officials in 1921 took a laissez-faire attitude toward Greenwood. The democratically-elected City Commission of the time tried to use government regulation -- a fire ordinance -- to prevent Greenwood residents from rebuilding. Attorneys from the community challenged the ordinance and won an injunction, clearing the way for reconstruction. (Joe Lockett v. the City of Tulsa -- see pp. 87-88 of Scott Ellsworth's Death in a Promised Land.)

Maloy says that I overlook the role of racism in the history of Greenwood, but I think my references to segregation, racist mobs of white looters, and a city government that wanted to remove blacks to a new district beyond the city limits point clearly enough to the racism behind those actions.

Some urban renewal advocates may well have been motivated by racism, but some proponents were well-intentioned progressive activists trying to bridge the gap between Tulsa's black and white communities. The story of Tulsa's Model Cities program deserves to be explored in depth, and I would welcome the chance to talk to those with first-hand knowledge.

Finally, Prof. Maloy wants to know why the "Do-It-Yourself approach" which worked to rebuild Greenwood after the 1921 riot hasn't worked in the 40 years since urban renewal and the construction of I-244.

It's simple: After 1921, the land remained in private ownership, and the victims of the riot could rebuild what had been burned down.

But in the '60s and '70s, urban renewal took the land out of private ownership. Most of the south end of the district is still owned by some government entity. The urban renewal authority has sold some of the land in the northern part back to private owners, but mainly for residential and industrial development. There is no land available for new commercial development.

For example, if you wanted to rebuild the Holloway Building at 350 N. Greenwood Av. (home, in 1957, to Holloway's Hardware and Appliances, Holloway Dental Laboratory, a doctor's office, and an advertising and painting company), you'd have to fill in a pond, and you'd have to get permission from Prof. Maloy's employer. OSU-Tulsa controls all of Deep Greenwood north of I-244, with the exception of two churches and the City's Greenwood Cultural Center.

The commercial buildings between King and Pine Streets (including the Rex Theater) which faced Greenwood were cleared by urban renewal and replaced with suburban homes facing the side streets, many of which have been turned into cul-de-sacs. Only a few churches, Carver Middle School, the old Public Library (now a Unitarian Church), and a few homes remain from the pre-urban renewal days.

City officials created an industrial park out of the area between the Midland Valley and Santa Fe tracks and south of Pine, which once had been residential and commercial. (It had its own movie theater, the Regal, on Lansing Ave.) Morning Star Baptist Church and Hutcherson YMCA are about the only buildings in that area that survived urban renewal.

There is one part of Deep Greenwood which might yet be redeveloped, south of I-244 and northeast of Archer and Elgin. It is owned by the Tulsa Development Authority (the renamed urban renewal authority). There have been proposals for mixed-use development on that site, but the TDA has yet to approve any of them, to the consternation of many north Tulsa community leaders.

Maloy objects to comparing Greenwood to Cherry Street and Brookside. Contrary to his assumptions, big developers didn't produce the rebirth of those neighborhood commercial districts. Along with the adjoining residential areas they went through a period of decline before their rediscovery and renovation. About 20 years ago, aspiring small business owners looking for a place to operate found cheap and often run-down storefront space in the old buildings along Peoria and 15th Street. If Greenwood had been left standing, it too might have been rediscovered.

Prof. Maloy concludes by saying that "the free market will always indulge racism, ignorance, fear, and sheer pettiness of spirit in the name of profits. Only a democratic process--public investment constrained by public consultation--can do better."

But world history is full of examples of a majority oppressing a minority by means of the power conveyed by democratic processes, often by limiting the minority's ability to own property and to buy and sell freely.

It was a democratically elected (and Democrat-controlled) legislature that created Oklahoma's racist Jim Crow laws. Democratically elected officials abetted the pillaging and burning of Greenwood in 1921 and tried to block its reconstruction.

Private individuals, businesses, and churches rebuilt Greenwood after the riot. A democratically elected city government, using public funds, demolished almost all of it in the name of urban renewal. Admittedly, the democratic process was distorted because city officials at the time were elected on an at-large basis, but nevertheless the tyranny of the majority, not the free market, was at work.

The evidence is there for Prof. Maloy's perusal, if he cares to look.

Michael D. Bates

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In my Ignite Tulsa talk on the "Greenwood Gap," I mentioned in passing the physical indications of the rebuilding and flourishing of Tulsa's African-American district after it was burned in 1921 by a white mob. I would have included photos of some of t... Read More

2 Comments

Brooksider Author Profile Page said:

Great article, outstanding research. I wish more civic discussions could be held on such an informed basis. Thanks.

Roy said:

Has Prof Maloy cared to look? I'm not anticipating his having done so.

Some folks simply do not care what actually happened when that conflicts with a paradigm decreeing what must have happened. Maintaining a civil discussion marked by careful scholarship goes a long way in aiding progress toward abandonment of a flawed understanding. But sometimes that is not enough. The necessity of regeneration comes to mind....

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 18, 2009 12:08 PM.

Feedback wanted: PLANiTULSA, Driller Stadium was the previous entry in this blog.

Signs of Greenwood's rebuilding is the next entry in this blog.

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