Why ‘Black Wall Street’ Is an Insult, Not a Compliment
The following is an edited version of a Facebook post the author released June 17, 2021. World-Outlook is publishing it to mark the centennial of this horrible milestone in African-American history. Above all, we believe the ideas expressed below have genuine political importance for today, in addition to setting the historical record straight on the Tulsa massacre.
By James Mac Warren
June 28, 2021—Hello everyone. I start with a brief introduction to what I wrote last year on the 1921 Tulsa massacre and the discussion and debate related to it, which continues to this day in the African-American community and beyond. A debate that includes many misguided opinions, often based on lack of knowledge of the facts and an abundance of prejudice.
A year after I wrote the piece that follows, I’m hearing people—so-called experts—who are advancing the idea that if “the white folk had left them alone,” referring to the African-American community in Tulsa, this was our “road to freedom.” These “experts” fail to even think about what they are saying. If our road to freedom can be derailed by a mob of racists committing mass murder, we are defeated before we even start.
What happened in Tulsa was part of a wave of anti-working-class, racist terror that started with the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in the 1870s.
The Spanish-American war at the turn of the 20th century marked the entry of the United States onto the world stage as an imperialist power. Any progressive role the national bourgeoisie—the industrial capitalist ruling class—had played in the 19th century was a thing of the past by 1921.
The government-sanctioned terror inside this country was a signal to the oppressed people of the world that “The Yankees are coming.” You too should expect the same treatment.
The federal government’s number one target was the 1917 Russian Revolution. Why? Because the world’s first successful socialist revolution inspired at the time millions among the exploited and oppressed around the globe by establishing a government of workers and farmers, not capitalists. A government that promoted and implemented social and racial equality, opposition to imperialist war, and support for the right of oppressed nations and nationalities to self-determination.
The anti-immigrant Palmer raids—conducted in 1919 and ’20 and targeting left-leaning workers, many of them recent arrivals from Italy and Eastern Europe, who were deported after being nabbed by the feds—were a prelude to the Tulsa terror. The U.S. government used the Palmer raids as a weapon of intimidation against any laborer who dared to stand up for their rights, much like the Tulsa massacre would be used a year later to intimidate any African American standing up for their rights.
With Woodrow Wilson elected U.S. president in 1913 and holding office until 1921, we had the first post-Civil War politician, a self-described liberal, to glorify the KKK from the White House.
My point here is simple: If you listen to the “experts,” you would think the problem is the racism of the people, not the racist action of the government that feeds the mob because they realize there is a small price to pay for doing so. This is first and foremost a white racist government problem, not a white people problem.
The brief sketch that follows is a small part of a much bigger story that must be told and understood.
‘Black Wall Street’ an insult, not a compliment
June 19, 2020—Happy Juneteenth everyone. As we observe the 99th anniversary of the government-sanctioned white racist riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I feel obligated to share my thinking on this horrible event in the history of the African American people.
First and foremost, this white racist riot must be recognized for what it was. It was a preventable mass murder that was allowed to play itself out to the very end. The National Guard or federal troops will always show up after mass murders to help cover up the carnage, never in time to prevent them. There is not a single example in the history of this country where government intervention prevented one. (For a factual account of the Tulsa massacre see the historical sketch at the end of this article.)
The federal, state, and local governments, as well as the police at every level, had all the resources necessary to prevent this crime against humanity. They all stood aside and locally joined the bloodletting. For this reason, we must reject this horror as simply the result of the racism of “white America” and call it what it was: A government-sanctioned mass murder, because the government refused to take the actions necessary to prevent it. This is true for every other mass murder of African Americans since the modern capitalist system of land and labor was imposed throughout this country under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869.
When I discovered how this Tulsa community got its nickname, hearing a would-be historian or reporter refer to this small business district as “the Black Wall Street” made me sick to my stomach.
Booker T. Washington, whose name has become synonymous historically with “Uncle Tom,” observed this district during a trip to Muskogee, Oklahoma. He declared it the Negro Wall Street. Washington (1856-1915), an influential African American in his time, preached a philosophy of self-help and accommodation to the racist authorities. He urged Blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work.
The real Wall Street so many African-American misleaders love today was initially built in great part with profits from the slave trade. Today’s Wall Street profited from the hundreds of years of slave labor until the Civil War. For the last 140 years, after the defeat of the Radical Republican-led Reconstruction governments, they have enjoyed super-profits from the government-backed devaluation of African-American labor power, which continues to this day. To add insult to injury, they built their physical structure in Manhattan, New York, on or near the grave of 15,000 to 20,000 African slaves, a majority of whom were worked to death before the age of 30.
By designating this wonderful collective accomplishment in Oklahoma as a “Negro Wall Street,” Mr. Washington revealed his total and complete ignorance of the capitalist system he so slavishly bowed down to. That began with his demand that African-American working people submit, as he had, to the power and glory of the Jim Crow system. He went further and used every tool at his disposal, granted to him by his Jim Crow masters, to advocate forcing workers to obey their bosses, including calling for the denial of jobs and benefits to those who opposed his suicidal doctrine.
I leave aside the no-proportions-guarded aspects of designating this small Tulsa district as a “Wall Street.” It’s worse than calling an African-American, family-owned, furniture business in your neighborhood the “Black IKEA.” This is total nonsense.
Parenthetically, I wouldn’t want to be an African-American stock trader on Wall Street working at the most racist institution on the planet earth. Imagine the “jokes” when the phrase “Black Wall Street” is uttered, all of which will end with the phrase “N——r rich.” I can almost feel sympathy towards these people.
Black business vs. capitalist business in Blackface
This designation was the opposite of what this Tulsa business district represented. In fact, this district is historically one example of what I have come to accept as true “Black Businesses.” This district served the community as a whole. Its businesses charged reasonable prices and generally paid employees much more than what the racist capitalist market system allowed.
As far as I am concerned, the only Black businesses I recognize as progressive in any way are those that charge working people less and pay us more. Anything else is a capitalist business in Blackface. Calling this outstanding collective achievement of a community of eleven thousand a “Negro Wall Street” is an insult to all the hundreds of martyrs who lost their lives to a mob of blood-thirsty killers.
When Mr. Washington declared these small businesses the “Negro Wall Street” he completed the cycle. He declared a business district that would be burned to the ground in a day as the road to African-American freedom. He combined this false designation with his rejection of the African-American working class, the class that challenged and defeated the Jim Crow system.
The most important lesson to take from this experience is the need for the African-American working class to chart our own road forward or we will be left behind to lose further ground. If you listen to the speeches and proclamations coming from the middle-class misleadership, you would be hard-pressed to find any mention of the plight of our class. This omission is part of their course. We must step up inside the emerging movement we are a part of today.
The starting point for this movement is to protect our very life and limb from the police. The COVID-19 crisis continues to claim the lives of African-American working people way out of proportion to our percentage of the population. We must begin the process of developing demands that start with addressing the violence resulting from government inaction on COVID-19 and its widespread use of police brutality. But we cannot stop there. There are social demands that are part and parcel of the historic program of the working-class movement that we must place at the top of our agenda. The key to our prospects is to keep this movement in the streets and press this struggle forward.
We gave the Black elected officials, the preachers, the professors, and all the rest of the middle-class misleadership of a nonexistent civil rights movement today, more than 50 years to address our needs. They failed us miserably. Now is the time for us—working people—to tell them to listen to us.
We, the African-American working people, have something to say. We must use our methods of struggle, the working-class methods, including mass mobilizations, strikes, and picket lines to press our demands on the government—every level of it, federal, state, local. They are all responsible for the life-and-death situation we face today. We cannot afford to do anything less. Our very lives are at stake.
I will return to discuss my thinking on the social demands that are part and parcel of the historic program of the working-class movement in a separate piece.
I end with a brief account of the 1921 Tulsa massacre for those who may not be aware of the facts.
A historic sketch of the 1921 Tulsa massacre
On the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young Black delivery man, was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Tulsa’s Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. Later during the day, racists started circulating rumors among the city’s white community of a so-called incident, an alleged assault by Rowland against Page. The rumors became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 Tulsa Tribune, which added fuel to the racist fire, spurred a confrontation. Dozens of Tulsa’s African Americans, including armed veterans of World War I, converged on the courthouse to save Rowland from a potential lynching—a common occurrence in the deep South under Jim Crow. White racist mobs, armed to the teeth, also surrounded the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor and were holding Rowland. As shots were fired, the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District, Tulsa’s Black community.
In the morning of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by racist rioters. Governor James Robertson declared martial law. National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen imprisoned all Black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
In the wake of the racist mob violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. A 2001 state commission confirmed 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 white. But historians believe that as many as 300 people were killed, the overwhelming majority African Americans. The mob buried most victims in unmarked graves to cover its tracks.
According to public records available at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, Black Tulsans had every reason to believe that Rowland would be lynched after his arrest. Charges against him were later dismissed. They were bogus to begin with. African Americans had cause to believe that Rowland’s personal safety, like the defense of themselves and their community, depended on them alone. What unfolded would more than vindicate that assumption.
As hostile groups gathered and the confrontation worsened, government authorities at every level failed to take action to calm or contain the situation. At the eruption of violence, civil officials selected many men—all of them white and some of them participants in the racist mob violence—and deputized them. These deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts that were patently illegal. Public officials provided firearms and ammunition to individuals, again all of them white.
National Guard interned Blacks, giving free reign to racist mob
Units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all, or nearly all, of Greenwood’s Black residents. They removed them to other parts of the city and detained them in holding centers.
Entering the Greenwood district, the racist mobs had free reign to steal, damage, or destroy personal property left behind in homes and businesses. Racists, including agents of government, deliberately burned, or otherwise destroyed homes. The carnage included an estimated 1,256 homes ruined, along with virtually every other structure—churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library—in the Greenwood district.
Despite their publicly proclaimed duty to preserve order and to protect property, no government at any level resisted the destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood—to the contrary.
According to eyewitness reports highlighted in the documentary Uncovering the Greenwood Massacre Nearly a Century Later, aired June 14, 2020, on the TV show “60 Minutes,” racists in military fatigues fired a machine gun indiscriminately from the top of a grain elevator into Greenwood Street, while planes circling above dropped turpentine incendiary bombs that quickly turned most rooftops into fire balls. It was the first time in U.S. history that planes were used inside the country to terrorize U.S. citizens—all of them African Americans.
Not one of these criminal acts, including the murders of hundreds of people, was then or has ever been prosecuted or punished by government at any level: municipal, county, state, or federal. Even after the restoration of order, it was official policy to release a Black detainee only upon the application of a white person, and then only if that white person agreed to accept responsibility for that detainee’s subsequent behavior. As private citizens, many whites in Tulsa and neighboring communities did extend assistance to the massacre’s victims. Although the city and county governments bore much of the cost for Red Cross relief, neither contributed substantially to Greenwood’s rebuilding. In fact, municipal authorities acted initially to impede reconstruction.
Despite being numerically at a disadvantage, Black Tulsans fought valiantly to protect their homes, their businesses, and their community. But the city’s African-American population was simply outnumbered and outgunned by the racist invaders who were aided by the government’s armed forces. Ultimately, the restoration of Greenwood after its systematic destruction was left to the victims of that destruction.
About 10,000 Black people were left homeless. Property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020). Many survivors left Tulsa. Black residents who stayed in the city largely kept silent about the terror, violence, and the resulting losses for decades—understandably given the Jim Crow terror enveloping the South with government complicity. For decades, the government at all levels kept even a mention of the massacre omitted from local, state, and national histories.
In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, the state legislature authorized the formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, published in 2001, states that the city had conspired with the white mob against Black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants.
James Mac Warren is a long-time leader of the Black liberation struggle and a militant of the labor movement. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1950s and ’60s, he got involved from a young age in the mass struggle to overturn Jim Crow segregation in the South. This included helping lead school walkouts as a teenager, to back striking Memphis sanitation workers seeking union recognition and an end to racist treatment by city authorities. In 1968, he took part in the mass protests in Memphis following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, after high school graduation, he worked for the radical newspaper The Root and joined the movement to end the U.S. war on Vietnam.
In 1975, he traveled to Boston at the request of the National Student Coalition Against Racism to help lead the battle to enforce desegregation of the Boston public schools. During the 1970s, he participated in the Black Political Assembly conventions. He was a founding member and leader of the National Black Independent Political Party in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, he took part in anti-racist protests in Los Angeles demanding justice for the brutal beating of Rodney King by the police.
He has worked in auto plants and steel mills and has been a member of the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers unions.
Warren has traveled widely. In 1980 he visited Grenada, then under the leadership of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement, to learn more about the revolutionary process in that Caribbean nation. He also visited Nicaragua in 1984 and 1986, during that country’s revolution.
From 1971 until 1995 Warren participated in these activities as a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He was a national party leader for many years. He was also the SWP candidate for U.S. president in 1988 and 1992. After resigning from the SWP in 1995, Warren refocused his attention on the study of the history of the African-American people, and on writing about its lessons, as his key priorities, while participating in related protest actions.
Most recently, he joined the mass movement against police brutality and racism that exploded in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
World-Outlook extends its appreciation to Duane Stilwell for copy editing this article. We welcome him as a regular contributor to our volunteer editorial staff.