#027: The Myth of an Impervious People

In 1925 Greenwood welcomed the nation's leading black entrepreneurs for a lavish convention to prove that the massacre had not destroyed their spirit.

Welcome to the twenty-seventh edition of Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. During 2021 the newsletter is focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House called Built From the Fire. See more updates on the Run It Back Instagram page.

The jubilant procession stretched for a mile down Greenwood Avenue. There were cowboys sauntering down the street on horses, military units marching in formation with rifles slung over their shoulders, and cars covered hood to bumper in colorful flowers. Tulsa native Amanda Robinson, crowned Miss Oklahoma, waved to a crowd of onlookers along with her regal court, lounging on an elaborate float drawn by a team of four horses. Behind the women came the boom of bass drums from the band of the Tenth Cavalry, a battalion descended from the famed Buffalo Soldiers. American banners hung from every flagpole and car window, as Greenwood’s residents celebrated their triumphant return to the national stage. Black Wall Street was back.

It was August 1925, four years after a white mob burned nearly all of Greenwood to the ground. Much of the neighborhood had been rebuilt within a year of the massacre, thanks largely to the ingenuity and resilience of black Tulsans themselves. Efforts by both government officials and real estate executives to take over the district had been thwarted. Many of the old businesses--Jackson Undertaking Company, S.D. Hooker Dry Goods Store, the Dreamland Theater--were reopened. But Tulsa now carried a racist stigma that, perversely, made it harder for the Greenwood residents who had stayed and rebuilt to keep growing their enterprises. “Negroes from Tulsa traveling elsewhere or abroad were taunted and ridiculed about what had taken place,” attorney B.C. Franklin recalled in his autobiography. “People everywhere of all races thought Tulsa was an unsafe place in which to locate and do business.” 

Greenwood leaders, led by the local chapter of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, successfully petitioned the National Negro Business League to hold their annual conference in Tulsa in 1925. The 26-year-old league was not as influential as it had been under the leadership of Booker T. Washington, who died in 1915, but it still commanded respect among the nation’s black elite. Robert R. Moton, who succeeded Washington as the president of Tuskegee, also served as the president of the business league. He and Greenwood entrepreneurs were both interested in advancing a narrative that their race had the ability to triumph over even the most vicious forms of racism. And so Moton and hundreds of other league members came to Oklahoma for three days of pageantry, networking and business training sessions. Other prominent business league members of the era who likely came to Tulsa included Robert Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender; C.C. Spaulding, president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, and Maggie Walker, the successful banker from Richmond, Virginia. 

Black Tulsans worked their hardest to prove the massacre had not stifled their entrepreneurial spirit. Greenwood’s many upscale hotels overflowed with guests. Simon Berry, a licensed pilot and visionary local entrepreneur, took visitors on aerial tours of the city in his bi-plane, which included two cockpits. League members danced at the Nails Brothers Pavilion and swam at the indoor swimming pool that Berry also owned. Each day of the convention the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, two Negro League baseball teams, squared off on the diamond. “At no time in the league's history have more elaborate preparations been made to give out-of-town folks a hearty welcome,” remarked a correspondent for the New York Age

A video still from a recording of the 1925 National Negro Business League industrial parade in Greenwood, captured by Solomon Sir Jones. Watch the entire film here.

Tulsa’s white leaders also made a pointed effort of putting on a good show. League delegates who were aware of Oklahoma’s segregated train law may have been surprised to be ushered into the city on private Pullman cars. Both black and white locals attended the opening ceremony for the convention, where league president Robert Moton hit the usual by-your-own-bootstraps notes about the importance of thrift and homeownership, while also touting the new National Negro Finance Corporation, an initiative to supply credit to burgeoning black-owned businesses. Oklahoma Governor Martin E. Trapp and Tulsa Mayor Herman Newblock both spoke at the welcome ceremony. Newblock had been a city commissioner at the time of the massacre and voted in favor of a fire ordinance that would have prevented many blacks from rebuilding (the ordinance was later invalidated by a county court). But he preached the gospel of racial harmony when national journalists poured into town. "There'll be no more racial trouble in Tulsa,” Newblock declared in his speech. 

All this boosterism elided the fact that Tulsa still had open wounds stemming from the massacre and its aftermath. An avalanche of lawsuits from Greenwood property owners remained pending in the courts (many of the suits were summarily dismissed on the same day in 1937, for reasons unknown). The Ku Klux Klan was ascendant in Oklahoma in the early 1920’s--likely emboldened by a massacre--and had recently built a mammoth assembly hall just west of Greenwood. In 1922 a black police officer named John Smitherman had been kidnapped by white vigilantes and had his ear sliced off for registering black Democrats to vote. Rumors tied the violence to the Klan. 

Greenwood leaders certainly knew all the dark details of their town’s troubles, but at least in public proclamations, they kept the bad news to themselves. "No law abiding citizen, regardless of color, need fear to come to Tulsa,” wrote Theodore Baughman, editor of the Oklahoma Eagle. “As you will find the best of feeling existing between races.” Left unsaid was that A.J. Smitherman, the most prominent black newspaper editor in the city before Baughman, had been pursued by the local and state officials on charges of inciting a riot and forced to abandon Tulsa for the rest of his life. 

While the massacre dominated local newspaper headlines throughout 1921, by 1925 it was already being minimized among leaders in both black and white Tulsa. For white people, the incentive was obvious. Tulsa was angling to grow into one of America’s great cities, and the stigma associated with mob lawlessness and Klan activity did civic and business leaders no favors. White officials were happy to welcome wealthy black people from out of town in order to siphon off some of their tourism dollars, but the city had no intention of offering redress to the black citizens who called the community home day in and day out. 

For black people, the treatment of the massacre was more complex. In 1925, black people had just survived a yearslong, nationwide wave of white supremacist violence, suffering several hundred deaths in the process. Entire communities had been wiped off the map. There was no doubt a conviction among some black leaders that racial tensions had to be eased for survival’s sake. A truce with white people--even a hollow, surface-level truce--might have felt necessary to ensure Greenwood’s safety.

Put simply, Greenwood residents could not afford to be angry. Anger could be a death sentence--swift and brutal, if that rage was directed at a white person, or slow and self-destructive, if swallowed deep inside. These survivors didn’t want to burden their children with that rage, and they sensed there was no way in a city like Tulsa they’d ever get to unburden themselves. They didn’t want to dwell on the survivor’s guilt, the bone-deep fear, the horrific images of violence and death they could never quite shake from their minds. And who would? “We didn’t sit around the dinner table talking about the Tulsa massacre of 1921,” Marilyn Christopher, the granddaughter of massacre survivor W.D. Williams, told me last year. 

The residents of Greenwood needed a different story. In a world of ceaseless racial trauma, and after a series of failed attempts nationwide to stymie mob justice, it made sense that black Tulsans wanted to celebrate their resiliency. No one wants to be seen as weak, but the challenge of being black is that it is also a danger to be perceived as too strong, as a threat. The only option is to pretend to be impervious--to fire, to trauma, to racism, to the outside world. If history is told by the victors, the reshaping of the massacre narrative as one of triumph can be seen as a refusal to accept defeat. It was not the whole story, but it was the story people needed then.  “It is fitting…that this convention should be held in Tulsa,” a columnist at the Chicago Defender wrote after the 1925 business league meeting. “It is one certain way of telling those who would destroy us that we are indestructible.”


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Sources

B.C. Franklin, My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1997).

Carlos Moreno, “The Victory of Greenwood: B.C. Franklin,” New Tulsa Star.

“Convention Time,” The Chicago Defender, Aug. 29, 1925.

Film 20, 1925. Solomon Sir Jones Films. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“National Negro Business League Meets at Tulsa, Okla. in August,” July 10, 1925.

“Negro Business League Held National Session,” New York Age, Aug. 29, 1925.

“Negro Whipped, One Ear Cut Off by Masked Band,” Tulsa World, March 12, 1922.

“Negroes: Industrialists,” Time, Sept. 1, 1924.

Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, Okla., 2019).

Oklahoma Eagle, Aug. 20, 1925.

Steve Gerkin, “Beno Hall: Tulsa’s Den of Terror,” This Land, Sept. 3, 2011.