The Greensboro Sit-In & Black Wall Street
This week marks the 60th anniversary of a significant event in the Civil Rights Movement—The Greensboro Sit-In. As a transplant to North Carolina, I am grateful that outright segregation is a thing of the past here. But even though there are no longer different drinking fountains for whites and people of color, or white-only public bathrooms or swimming pools, we still have a long way to go to reach true equality. Not only in North Carolina, but also in our nation. This week provides a good time to take a look back and remind ourselves of how hard fought these gains have been.
Imagine the courage it took for four young men college students to walk into a Woolworth store in Greensboro, NC in 1940 and sit at a whites-only lunch counter. Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond and Franklin McLain were freshmen students at North Carolina’s A&T University. Despite not being waited on, and being asked to leave multiple times, they sat. The next day, they returned to sit all over again. By Day Three, they had three hundred fellow students sit in with them. As word of their peaceful protest spread, within months, similar demonstrations took place in restaurants and other segregated places all over the southern United States, marking a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
Joseph McNeil recalled the feelings and the reasons he and his fellow protestors had on February 1, 1940. “We hung in there. We learned to turn the other cheek, but we figured it out, and it worked in our favor, and we had people from all walks of life support the principals.”
These are the principles we are still learning and struggling with today.
Black Wall Street
Another event in Black History is not so well known. Nearly one hundred years ago, Tulsa, Oklahoma had a thriving district for black residents. Divided by a line of railroad tracks, the Greenwood Avenue district had over 1,200 homes and businesses serving the black community in 35 square blocks. More than 200 businesses flourished there, and some of the homes rivaled those prosperous homes in the white community. The area was known throughout Tulsa as Black Wall Street and served as the epicenter of African American wealth and entrepreneurship.
The black population in Oklahoma had arrived along with the Native Americans who traversed the Trail of Tears. Some were slaves, some were freedmen, but all migrated to Oklahoma in search of a better life. Due to the treaties negotiated between the government and the Native tribes, many blacks who were granted citizenship in the tribes were allowed ownership of parcels of land. They joined together, pooling their resources, and welcomed other blacks who had become free following the Civil War. Upon the discovery of oil in Tulsa, the town became a boom town, attracting many newcomers and forcing segregation. The black population in Tulsa migrated to the northern end, and a succession of mom-and-pop businesses sprang up, making Greenwood Avenue a black version of Main Street, USA. The residents of Greenwood had achieved the American dream, less than 60 years after the end of slavery.
That was, until one night in January 1921, when thousands of Tulsa residents crossed the tracks and set fire to the district. Brewing resentment for the rising wealth of the black community boiled over, after several years of barely contained rage. Tulsa’s deadliest night began with an accusation of rape, when a white woman and a black man were alone in an elevator and the man touched the woman’s arm. The man, Dick Rowland, was arrested and placed in the local jail. A group of black men drove to the jail to ensure Rowland’s safety, where they were met by a crowd of hundreds of white men. Even though the young woman quickly recanted her rape claim, within minutes of the arrival of the black men, twenty men on both sides were dead or wounded, and war had begun. Nearly 5,000 white men descended on the Greenwood Avenue district with torches and guns.
Hundreds of people were gunned down in their front yards and their homes looted. Planes dropped kerosene bombs on the area, and machine guns fired rounds at the churches. Within a couple hours, Greenwood Avenue had become a war zone. The attack destroyed over 1,200 homes, leaving 9,000 Tulsa residents homeless. According to some records, between 100 and 300 people died that night.
Clockwise from top left: Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images; American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress); Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By the end of that year, Greenwood’s residents had rebuilt more than 800 homes and businesses and by 1922, nearly all of the community was restored. The entire incident was swept under the rug as Oklahoma did not acknowledge it in any of its historical lore. Recently, accounts of Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street have resurfaced in the form of theatrical productions, Big Mama Speaks and Tulsa ’21.
The centennial of Black Wall Street will take place in 2021.
If your interest has been piqued, here is some additional reading, all available on Amazon:
Becky Lower moved to North Carolina several years ago and has been busy finding out about the local history ever since. The fun part about writing historical romances is finding history around every corner. Her new series is set during the Revolutionary War in which North Carolina was a major player. Another story?