A white mob burned down Tulsa's booming 'Black Wall Street' 99 years ago. Meet the young entrepreneurs rebuilding it despite coronavirus — and Trump's impending visit.
2020 marks 99 years since white mobs descended on a thriving Black district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing 300 people and burning businesses to the ground. "We want to show that these injustices are still happening," Dr. Stevie Johnson, one of many artists and business owners rebuilding Tulsa's Black Wall Street, told Business Insider. As President Trump's re-election campaign heats up with its first rally in Tulsa on Saturday, June 20, we spoke with some of the leaders harnessing the creativity and resources of Tulsa's Black community to educate, inspire, and build businesses. Click here for more BI Premium content.
On a spring day in March, Black artists from Oklahoma gathered in an historic mansion in Tulsa to record a hip-hop album and documentary. Dr. Stevie Johnson is the producer for the project, called the Fire in Little Africa. As he mixes and masters the recordings, the Black Lives Matter movement has reached a fever pitch in America, organizing in dozens of cities to protest the ongoing crisis of racism and police brutality. Tulsa in particular was thrust back into the national spotlight when President Donald Trump's campaign announced that it would hold its first in-person rally since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in the city on June 19. It's an historic date, also known as Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the emancipation of American slaves. But Tulsa is also famous, and infamous, for another historic date in Black history: a 1921 assault known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. In the years leading up to that terrible event, Tulsa's "Black Wall Street" was a rare example of a thriving black community in an era when systemic racism largely prevented such things. But that changed on June 1, 1921, when simmering racial tension boiled over. White residents of Tulsa began looting and burning the 35-acre district known as "Black Wall Street," killing 300 people. Fire in Little Africa is named for a photograph that shows the city's Black commercial district engulfed in smoke after the assault. This violent moment in history, still unprosecuted and forgotten in most American history books, remains an open wound for many of Tulsa's residents.
The Greek revival-style building known as the Skyline Mansion where Johnson and his collaborators are recording was built in 1920 by Tate Brady, an Oklahoma businessman and member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was from this mansion that Brady, also one of the key architects of the massacre, descended 99 years ago to patrol the blood-stained streets of Greenwood. "You could just feel that Brady didn't want us there," said Johnson, who is also the director of education at the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie Centers, two related institutions in Tulsa which hold both singers' archives. Mysteriously flickering lights and tingling nerves during the 18-hour recording session gave the group a profound sense that Tulsa's violent past was very much alive today. When some of the participants expressed discomfort at working in such an historically fraught house, Johnson says he told them, "we're here to reclaim this space for this project." "We're bending time; we're bending history," he said. "We're posing questions like, 'Are we talking about today, or are we talking about 100 years ago?' We want to show that these injustices are still happening."
As more and more news outlets, including Business Insider, reported on the seeming coincidence of Trump's campaign celebrating Black emancipation with a rally at the site of such a traumatic massacre, the campaign rescheduled the event for the next day. But Johnson said the message was clear. "There's no coincidence that he wants to come to Tulsa," Johnson said. "People are making very tactical decisions about Black Wall Street and profiting off of Black trauma and Black death." Business Insider spoke with the Black artists and entrepreneurs who are working to reclaim and reckon with Tulsa's complicated history. Together, these founders are writing a new chapter in the story of Black Wall Street, even as America is only beginning to address issues that Johnson says have made Black Tulsans fear for their lives for a century. The book store founder who crowdfunded a space for the Black community and education
Five blocks north of the Skyline Mansion, Onikah Asamoa-Caesar runs Fulton Street Books, a bookstore and cafe that provides a safe space for marginalized communities. Asamoa-Caesar moved to Tulsa in 2013 to become a Teach for America Corps member. She soon realized the area wasn't as diverse as she had hoped it would be. "Anytime I walked into a space, I always felt othered," Asamoa-Caesar told Business Insider. "I never walked into a space and felt like someone thought of me when they created this or this was created for me in mind." Fulton Street Books fills that void in spaces for people of color. The store offers a range of books from authors of color in hopes of educating young people on literature by a diverse set of writers. One of the shop's most popular items is the Ally Box, a three-month subscription box to help white people become better allies to the Black community. Each box includes two books, curated resources, and access to an online learning webinar for $80 per month. "People want resources, where can I find resources for allyship?" Asamoa-Caesar said. "A lot of folks were starting to understand the burden that is placed on Black folks to be the ones who are offering a free public education while also experiencing pain and anger and rage and sadness."
Asamoa-Caesar told Business Insider that she initially struggled to secure funding for the shop. She raised a total of $250,000 for her business through a mix of loans, personal funds, and a crowdfunding campaign. "It was a very healthy mix of funding sources," Asamoa-Caesar said. "I didn't have the liberty to say, 'Oh, I just want it to be crowdfunded,' or 'I just want it to be a business loan.'" There are two steps she recommends entrepreneurs consider when funding a new business. First, she says offering a product that adds value to the community incentivizes people to invest in and support the business when it opens. "I think for Fulton Street our strategy was to create a space that people have been wanting and believe that it would attract them there," she said. Her Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised $21,783 from 200 backers. Second, she said it's important to take a risk in asking for help. "I asked people to invest in Fulton Street, even if I thought they might say no," she said. It's important for business owners of color to ask their communities for financial backing, Asamoa-Caesar said. This is especially true since traditional routes of funding aren't always reliable sources. Business Insider previously reported that Black female founders earn less than 1% of all venture capital funding. "What you'll hear is Black women are not getting the same or equal amount of funding because they're a bigger risk," Asamoa-Caesar said. "But what I've seen is that they're not any more risky than the tech startup that people are investing in." "Creating equity in terms of who corporations are willing to take a risk on is necessary," she added. The mayoral candidate who founded Black Wall Street Gallery and went back to the drawing board to focus on what his customers need right now
A five-minute drive to the southeast, on Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa native Dr. Ricco Wright created the Black Wall Street Gallery. Dr. Wright (his doctorate is in mathematics) has many roles, including philosopher, educator, writer, and social justice activist. One of his newest titles is candidate for mayor of Tulsa — a decision he made on deadline day for entering the race. One of his main running points is to support small businesses, as he has experienced the challenges of being an entrepreneur himself. Wright launched the gallery in 2018 as a space to preserve Black history and curate Black culture. His business centers around promoting equity and justice over diversity and inclusion. "It's shifting that paradigm," he said. "Part of the problem that we're dealing with is a lack of education. People don't know about other cultures." Though the gallery took a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, it pushed him and his team to build an online presence and start his clothing label, Stradford & Smitherman. Wright also plans to open a record store called Needle & Wax.
Wright said it's important for business owners to go back to the drawing board during crises and ask what they need to be doing differently. "I noticed that more people were engaging online. So take your business online," he said. When he posts on the gallery's Instagram page, he includes up to ten photos of one artwork so viewers feel closer to the piece and can appreciate it when they can't visit the physical exhibit. Wright created a four-part philosophy he calls "socioracial idealism," which has guided every exhibition at the gallery. According to this concept, each step — conciliation, healing, unity, and love — is essential for communities to achieve justice and equity. He is hopeful, but not optimistic, that the current momentum of Black Lives Matter has become an unprecedented global movement. "People who haven't been activists, now they're ready to be activists, to get on the front line, to also support Black-owned businesses and Black organizations and Black activists, because they're saying enough is enough," he said. The young entrepreneur who has married her love of sneaker culture and fine art — and is persisting through lean times during the pandemic
Last year, Venita Cooper had an idea: an art gallery inside a sneaker store. "I wanted to deliver an experience," she told Business Insider. "Part of sneaker culture is art. Sneakers are art; sneakers are street, and the street has art." So immediately Cooper sprang into action. She took a business planning class at the Tulsa Economic Development Corporation and took part in a Tulsa startup series, where entrepreneurs pitch business ideas for grant money. She went through the George Kaiser Family Foundation and Black upStart, a program that allows emerging entrepreneurs to take classes and refine their business pitches. The result was a sneaker store and streetwear-inspired art gallery named Silhouette Sneaker and Art, now located on Greenwood Avenue, next to Wright's Black Wall Street Gallery. "The term 'silhouette' was good at encapsulating that we're not just sneakers," she said. "One of the most beautiful things for me is when teenagers come in here, they're wearing their Yeezys and they go straight to the sneakers, but on the way out, they actually look at the art."
Like most entrepreneurs during this time, Cooper has had to move her sneaker and art experience online. The pandemic forced her brick-and-mortar store to temporarily close, and she has seen a near-70% decrease in sales these past few months. But surprisingly, she isn't too worried about that. "We weren't putting a lot of pressure on people to purchase, in part because with all the economic uncertainty we didn't want people to feel like they had to buy in order for us to survive," she said. Cooper applied for aid through the federal government's coronavirus relief bill and received funding through both options — a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Though Cooper's business is still new, its sheer existence, especially in the Greenwood District, is quite symbolic. It's the symbolism of Black America rebuilding on land once set aflame by a white mob who simply didn't want them to have it. Perhaps it is this symbolism that people are thinking about as the conversations of Black socioeconomic mobility reemerges amid the civil unrest caused by the death of George Floyd. It's something, at least, which lingers in the back of Cooper's mind. "We can't hang our hats on any of the progress that's already been made, because there are still people dying at the hands of racial injustice," she said. "As long as that's the case … we as a community have to look at ourselves and see what we can do, and move quickly to try to make sure that everyone in the community feels safe; that everyone in the community has equal opportunities." "There's a kind of energy right now, nationally, and even internationally for America that I have never witnessed in my life," she continued. "I'm cautiously optimistic."SEE ALSO: SEE ALSO: Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why Pikes Peak is the most dangerous racetrack in America
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