The Story of Black Wall Street #024: Assessing the Damage

The challenge of ascribing a dollar figure to Greenwood's destruction began days after the massacre and continues to this day

Welcome to the twenty-fourth edition of Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. During the year 2021 the newsletter will be focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House.

In Greenwood today, the race massacre memorials don’t document who was killed in 1921 so much as what was destroyed. On the sidewalks, weathered plaques denote where black-owned businesses once stood. Historical markers offer up statistics on the number of churches, restaurants and doctors that once populated the neighborhood. A slab of black marble in front of the Greenwood Cultural Center is engraved with an itemized list of damage claims from lawsuits against the city and insurance companies, totaling $2,719,745.61 ($40.4 million in today’s dollars).

This is partially a function of practicality. Tulsa spent nearly a century working to conceal the true scope of killing that took place, and city and community leaders are just now debating the best path forward for identifying and honoring the dead. While many of these victims’ stories were quite literally buried by their killers, the survivors could not be silenced. Through hundreds of lawsuits, Greenwood residents provided incredibly detailed lists of what was taken from them by the white mob, down to the number of feather pillows or contents of a china cabinet. 

But these claims were never paid, by insurance companies, elected officials, or the courts. And so when walking among the monuments on Greenwood Avenue today, it is not sacrifice one thinks about, as you might at a war memorial listing the names of fallen soldiers; it’s the colossal debt that has yet to be paid, a debt which compounds in magnitude with each passing year. 

Mabel Allen, who I discussed in Run It Back #023, is among the hundreds of Greenwood property owners identified on a memorial that includes a list of itemized losses

One of the first estimates of how much money was lost in the destruction of Greenwood appeared in Oklahoma City’s black newspaper, The Black Dispatch, on June 3, 1921. “$2,500,000 in Negro Property Destroyed,” was the towering headline on the front page ($37.1 million in today’s dollars). The ensuing article does not attempt to report a fatality count. Instead, it leads with a list of buildings that any observer could see had been reduced to rubble: the Stradford Hotel, the Dreamland Theater, the Tulsa Star newspaper office. How The Black Dispatch arrived at that specific figure so quickly is unknown, but history would show it to be a reasonably accurate estimate. 

White newspapers made no attempt to assess the damage so quickly. The first headlines focused specifically on the number of white people who had been killed during the massacre. Eventually, the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange, the white business group that was pressuring Greenwood residents to sell off their property, estimated that $1.5 million in damages had been sustained ($20.6 million in today’s dollars), with about a third of the damage in the business district. Of course, just as it would have been in the interest of Greenwood residents to value their property as highly as possible, it was in the Real Estate Exchange’s interest to value it as cheaply as possible to make a takeover more affordable. 

More precise figures emerged slowly, but only after meticulous accounting over the course of generations. In her 1922 book Events of the Tulsa Disaster, Mary Jones Parrish made a partial block-by-block list of the destroyed property and arrived at the figure $928,950 ($13.8 million in today’s dollars). Seventy years later, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission examined the total damages listed by Greenwood property owners, they calculated $1,470,711.56 ($21.9 million in today’s dollars) in claims sought across 193 different court cases in the year after the massacre. But dozens more suits were brought the next year, just before the statute of limitations would have prevented any further personal injury lawsuits. That explains how the list of damages on the Greenwood Avenue memorial, citing Tulsa County and Oklahoma District Court records, reached the $2.7 million figure. 

The Black Dispatch, a black-owned newspaper in Oklahoma City, and the white-owned Tulsa World focused focused on different elements of the massacre in the days afterwards

Of course, all of these numbers fail to capture the true scope of the financial picture. Many of Greenwood’s most prominent entrepreneurs filed lawsuits not only concerning the massacre but also regarding the efforts to take their land afterwards. J.B. Stradford’s suit against the people who seized the Stradford Hotel property after he fled Tulsa dragged into the 1930’s (he ultimately lost). Less wealthy Greenwood residents could not file a lawsuit of any sort, but their livelihoods were destroyed all the same.

Most critically, the massacre set back efforts at accumulating generational wealth for many Greenwood families. Converting the damage claims to 2021 dollars captures the impact of inflation, but it doesn’t account for the personal wealth, job growth, and community economic impact that a successful business can generate. Loula and John Williams owned three movie theaters across Oklahoma in 1921; how many more might they have opened in the ensuing decade, rather than falling into debt and ultimately losing control of all their properties? A.J. Smitherman built the Tulsa Star into a daily newspaper, a rarity in the black press; what kind of influence could he have had on the development of the next generation of black communities out West, rather than being forced to flee to Buffalo, where his next publication never achieved the same amount of cultural clout?

These examples represent only some of the most famous figures from Greenwood. According to a recent working paper by economists at Harvard University and Boston University, the negative financial impacts of the massacre were widespread. “The Massacre resulted in a decline in home ownership, occupational status, and educational attainment,” the preliminary study concludes. “These effects persist until at least 1940.”

Ascribing a dollar figure to a financial and moral debt that has been accruing for a century is an inexact science, no matter how much mathematical rigor is applied. What is more important the dollar figure plucked from many viable estimates is building the infrastructure for actually offering redress. In Rosewood, Florida, survivors of a racial terror attack in 1923 were awarded $150,000 each in 1994 ($265,000 in today’s dollars) by the Florida legislature. Some of their descendants received amounts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. A scholarship program continues to help send Rosewood descendants to college to this day. There is no way to fully atone for the injustices of the past, but there is always a place to start. 

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“$2,500,000 in Negro Property Destroyed.” The Black Dispatch. June 3 1921.

Albright A, Feigenbaum J, Nunn N. After The Burning: The Economic Effects of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Working Paper. July 2 2020.

Luckerson, Victor. “Watching Watchmen as a Descendant of the Tulsa Race Massacre.” The New Yorker. September 20 2020.

Luckerson, Victor. “What a Florida Reparations Case Can Teach Us About Justice in America.” September 10 2020.

Parrish, Mary Jones. Events of the Tulsa Disaster. 1922.

“Publisher of Nation’s First Negro Daily Newspaper is Dead.” Buffalo Evening News. June 22 1961.

A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. 2001.

Stradford v. Wagner et al., Circuit Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit. March 30 1933.

“Two Whites Dead in Race Riot.” Tulsa World. June 1 1921.