Tulsa, specifically the black district of Greenwood, one of the most affluent African-American communities in the United States, was also known as “Black Wall Street.” Ottawa W. Gurley was a wealthy African-American landowner from Arkansas. He traveled across the United States to participate in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. In 1906 Mr. Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa which was “only to be sold to colored.“ With a population of about 10,000 at the time, most businesses were in the small geographical area of Greenwood, Archer, and Pine. There were at least 15 black churches, dozens of Black-owned businesses, movie theaters, skating rinks, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, entertainment halls, construction companies, and recreation centers. At least two Black families owned their own airplanes. It was truly a safe and sustaining black community.
On May 31, 1921, Tulsa‘s Black community was the target of a violent attack on by white residents of Tulsa. The attack included deputized citizens, and planes dispatched by law-enforcement to drop bombs on this community. Black Wall Street was destroyed, rendering many of its residents homeless and without their businesses. For many years, all historical reporting, and even talk about the horrific tragedy, was forbidden or hushed. Black people were encouraged to be silent and not retaliate for fear of another government backlash.
My mother’s stepbrothers, James and Abe Yates, lost residences in that massacre —a financial loss that was never recovered.
There are many accounts of what happened, and it all undeniably connects to economics and race. Whites in Tulsa felt threatened by the vibrant, economical, and independent community built by Black Tulsans. The growth was caused, in part, by racist policies that forbid African-Americans to shop, eat, conduct banking or participate in life outside of their own Black neighborhood. As a result, money in the Black community of North Tulsa (the black side of the railroad tracks) was plenteous as our dollars turned over and over, supporting and reaching our people.
My maternal grandfather, Thomas Yates, whom we called “Papa,” was born in Corinth, Mississippi in 1850. He was enslaved from birth and released at about 16 years old. He told of being sold in slavery and taken from his mother at about four or five years old. When he died in 1944, I’m told he cried like a baby, in confusion, asking to leave the “big house.” Papa cried on his deathbed, saying, “I don’t want to go to the big house; I want to go to the shack with my mother.“ Papa was traumatized by the separation from his mother during childhood until the day he died. She must’ve lived in a shack outside of the “big house“ where darker and more pure, Black African Moors were forced to reside because of colorism. Papa, because of his white appearance, most likely lived in the big house. In his transition, what mattered to him was to be reunited with his mother.
Papa was a farmer by trade. He was a tall, slim, kind man with a long white beard. He was known for his prayers. I too have a heart for prayer. I know that endearment comes through him. He fathered 21 children and is remembered as a most beloved man.
His first marriage to Mary Buchannon produced 13 children: Robert, James, John, Charles, Yancy, Thomas, an unnamed twin, Lonnie, an unnamed twin, Bettie, Noah, Mary Eliza, and Cornelius. Mary died after delivering one set of twins.
Papa owned acres of farmland that we are told was taken from him in Texas. It was there he met my grandmother, Fanny Horton, born in 1870. She was 25 years old and he was 45. She was the second wife, with whom he formed a second family with the children he had with Mary. They had eight children, Alma, Edward, Lucious, Monroe, Alton, Hope, Geraldine, and Tenolia, my mother, the youngest of his 21 children.
Grandmother Fannie was referred to as “Mama.” For years, we believed she was a Choctaw Indian; however, in my DNA results, there is no Choctaw, only West African and Western European and 1% American. Papa, Mama, and all their children were listed in the census by the derogatory code of “mulatto,” meaning young mule, half-ass, half- breed. Mama lived with us until her death in 1962.
Papa was in his 60s when my mother was born, and I was her youngest, born to her in her 40s. That is 100 years between me and this formerly enslaved grandparent. My siblings and first cousins are third-generation descendants of North America’s enslaved people. No great-great nothing. My grandfather was born into chattel slavery here in the USA. The reply from any white people to whom I tell this is, “is that even possible?” I say, “yes, and here I am as proof.“
Today there is a memorial near Greenwood to honor the people, the story, and legacy of Black Wall Street. Parts of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park are located on my home address of 314 N. Elgin where I grew up in Tulsa. There we can pay tribute and acknowledge those who lost their lives, businesses, homes, communities and dignity during the horrendous assault on the Black people of Tulsa. I believe it was an assault on the dignity of whites as well.
Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act on May 21, 2021 to make it easier for the victims of the Tulsa Massacre to seek reparations.
Excerpted from Water My Soul, by Hilda Boulware. Hilda was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, spending childhood summers in Detroit. She graduated in the last Black Booker T. Washington “BTW” Hornets class, prior to the school’s desegregation. She studied pre-med for several years at Clark University and Spelman College in Atlanta, George, before giving in to the Acting bug that never subsided. You may have seen her on Gray’s Anatomy, Modern Family, NCIS, Black-ish, Insecure, Atypical, Black Jesus, Young Sheldon, Big Bang Theory, HTGAWM, and Shameless, to name a few. She completed her memoir, Water My Soul, in honor of the 2021 Tulsa Massacre Commemoration.