At the foot of the modern buildings of a street in the Greenwood neighborhood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, discreet metal plates attract attention.
Nailed to the ground, they bear the names of the black-owned businesses that once stood there before being destroyed during one of America’s worst racial massacres in 1921: “Shoemaker Grier,” “Earl Real Estate.”
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The plaques, a rare remnant of a neighborhood so prosperous it was nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” show that the history of Greenwood -a historically black sector- is not understood by the monuments that are currently preserved, but by those that are no longer there.
On the eve of the visit of President Joe Biden, popular with the black electorate, who will attend the commemorations of the centenary of the massacre on Tuesday, and after a year marked by the Black Lives Matter movement, the massacre resonates more than ever.
“They came and destroyed Greenwood and burned everything,” Bobby Eaton, 86, a neighborhood resident and former civil rights activist, told AFP.
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A century ago, in this town in the south of USA, the arrest of a young black man accused of assaulting a white woman triggered one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence ever seen in the country.
On May 31, 1921, after the arrest of Dick RowlandHundreds of angry whites gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse, signaling to black residents that a lynching – a common practice at the time and until recently, in the 1960s – was imminent.
A group of African-American veterans of World War I, some of them armed, mobilized to try to protect Rowland.
The tension increased and shots were fired. The fewer black residents retired to Greenwood, known at that time for its economic prosperity and its numerous businesses.
The next day, at dawn, lWhite men looted and burned the buildings, chasing and beating the blacks who lived there.
All day long they looted Black Wall Street -the police not only did not intervene but joined the destruction- until nothing but ruins and ashes remained, killing up to 300 people in the process.
The destruction left some 10,000 people homeless.
With a blue cap on his head and a t-shirt commemorating the centenary of the massacre on his shirt, Eaton feels marked by this event that he never saw but heard so much about as a child in his father’s barbershop.
“I learned a lot about the riots when I was very young, that has never left my memory”, He said.
“We do not own the land”
In his opinion, similar to that of many other neighbors, it was the prosperity of African Americans that unleashed the destruction.
“That sparked a great deal of jealousy, and it still does. That mentality that destroyed Greenwood largely still exists right here in Tulsa”, Eaton said.
Even 100 years after the massacre, racial tensions persist.
In the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge -a cafeteria whose name, like that of many businesses in GreenwoodIt is a tribute to the golden age of the neighborhood- Kode Ransom, a 32-year-old black man, sports long dreadlocks and a big smile as he greets customers.
He is the co-manager of the business, but he does not own the walls around it.
“People hear ‘Black Wall Street’ and think that it is completely controlled by blacks. Actually, it is not like that “, he claims.
Ransom calculates that There are about 20 African-American owned businesses in Greenwood, and they all pay rent.
“We do not own the land”, dice.
An urban planning policy, called urban renewal, carried out by the city council of Tulsa since the 1960s, it has had the effect of expelling homeowners afroestadounidenses whose houses or businesses, considered dilapidated, were demolished to make way for new buildings.
The construction of a seven-lane highway through the center of Main Street finished disfiguring the neighborhood.
“Back when Greenwood was Greenwood, you had 40 blocks, and now it’s all condensed into half a street … and even that half street is still not really Black Wall Street.Ransom said, sighing.
A few feet from the cafeteria, at the Greenwood Art Gallery, manager Queen Alexander, 31, organizes the paintings on display, which celebrate African-American culture.
He also pays the rent, which is about to go up 30%. The opening of a large museum dedicated to the neighborhood’s history, the Greenwood Rising History Center, which will officially open on Wednesday, has led to rising rents for surrounding businesses.
One of her acquaintances, who had run a beauty salon in Greenwood for more than 40 years, was evicted.
“I couldn’t pay the rent,” Alexander said. Outside her gallery windows, the woman watches gentrification underway.
“Now you see white people walking their dogs, and riding bicycles, in neighborhoods where you would never have seen them before”, he said, pointing to the opening of a baseball field, a Starbucks and “a college that I probably couldn’t afford.”
For her, GreenwoodWithout its African-American owners and historic buildings, it is no longer really the black neighborhood of Wall Street, but “the Greenwood neighborhood with some black business rentals.”
And “if tomorrow they evict us all, this is white Wall Street.”
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