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    Tulsa Struggles to Make Amends for a Massacre it Ignored for Nearly a Century

    BY  NOVEMBER 2018


    On weekday mornings, enticing whiffs of bacon and fried potatoes waft from Wanda J’s Next Generation restaurant in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. The smell of breakfast on the griddle offers a comforting contrast to the sound of big rigs and commuter traffic roaring by on the Interstate 244 overpass that cleaves the neighborhood in two. 

    At first glance, the Greenwood section of Tulsa doesn’t look much different from places in other cities where, in the name of urban renewal, new highways were erected in the 1960s, obliterating or dividing minority neighborhoods. Around the corner from Wanda J’s, there are signs of a revitalization effort -- or of gentrification, depending on whom you ask. A sign on an empty lot promises a future mixed-use development; a two-story historic building nearby has already been renovated with retail on the ground floor that includes a combo coffee shop and yoga studio, a bookstore, and a Vietnamese sandwich shop. 

    But the sidewalks that line the streets of this neighborhood offer a grim reminder of Greenwood’s darker past. Every 20 or 30 feet, a plaque lists the name of a business -- a restaurant, grocer, lawyer, doctor, clothing store -- and below it, the words, “Destroyed in 1921.”

    A hundred years ago, this 35-square-block section of Tulsa was home to one of the largest concentrations of African-American-owned enterprises and wealth in this country. It was so well-known at the time that Booker T. Washington nicknamed the area “Negro Wall Street.” At its peak, Greenwood was home to more than 300 businesses serving roughly 11,000 residents who, thanks to segregation, reinvested whatever they earned back into their community. By 1921, Black Wall Street, as it’s called today, boasted a three-story, chandeliered hotel as well as a public library, two newspapers, 23 churches and a high school that taught Latin, chemistry and physics.

    That all changed on May 31 of that year when a black teenage boy was accused of assaulting a white female elevator operator. Within hours, marauding white residents swept into the district and burned it to the ground.

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