by Contributing Writer Mana Tahaie
Earlier this year, Tulsa Development Authority (TDA) once again came under scrutiny by Tulsans concerned about the displacement of Black North Tulsa residents. In March, City Councilor Vanessa Hall Harper warned residents of District 1 that a proposed amendment of the Greenwood/Unity Heritage Neighborhoods sector plan subjected approximately 2,000 addresses to eminent domain. After significant and sustained opposition, the City put the plans on hold.
At the nexus of many interconnected current issues — Black Wall Street, urban renewal, gentrification, University Center at Tulsa (UCAT) land and others — lies a complex story of Black wealth acquisition and destruction in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma remains the home of the greatest number of all-Black towns in the U.S., with over 30 incorporated communities established in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (It’s important to note that White colonial settlers first stole these lands from the Native peoples who originally lived on them, then again from the tribes who were forcibly relocated to them through the Indian Removal Act with the promise of sole ownership.)
All-Black towns were historical settlements founded by formerly enslaved Blacks as a radical exercise in self-governance, and as a haven from racial violence and economic discrimination. Founders of all-Black towns intended to build Black political power by attracting a critical mass of residents. Black property ownership, business development and political autonomy enabled African Americans to practice cooperative economics to build collective wealth for the first time in U.S. history. For years, all-Black towns successfully defended themselves against Klan raids and attempts at sale of their land.
However, the first bills passed in Oklahoma upon statehood in 1907 were Jim Crow laws, including Black disenfranchisement and segregation of public schools and other accommodations. Lawmakers in the newly founded state were at best unsympathetic, and at worst hostile, to the interests of Black Oklahomans, leading to disinvestment in critical public infrastructure, like schools and roads in their towns. These policies were followed by the collapse of the farm economy — which many all-Black towns subsisted on — in the 1920s and the failure of many railroads in the 1930s. These factors, combined with the increased racist violence of the time, meant these once-protected spaces lost their value as havens from discrimination. The safety promised by the insularity of these towns faded quickly, and many residents migrated to other destinations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico in search of safety.
Greenwood and Black Wall Street
A confluence of factors led to the rise of Black Wall Street, many of them related to the success of all-Black towns. The lands purchased by O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford and sold only to Blacks, the prosperity gained from Tulsa’s oil boom, and the insularity of Greenwood’s economy created a thriving, self-contained economy that outpaced the rest of Tulsa’s growth after the post-WWI downturn. Many point to economic resentment on the part of White Tulsans as the fuel for the 1921 Race Massacre, citing attempts by White city leaders to prevent Blacks from rebuilding through pernicious zoning codes, predatory land grabs, expansion of a planned train depot, and a wider geographic gap between Black and White Tulsa.
The massacre was the single largest destruction of Black wealth in Oklahoma’s history. Early reports estimate the losses at $1,580,000. Even if Black Tulsans accumulated no additional income, assets, or wealth after 1921, their losses would be valued today at between $22.6 and up to $436 million. Insurance companies refused to pay claims, and the dollars burned in Greenwoods banks were unprotected, as the FDIC wasn’t founded until 1933.
After the massacre, in spite of attempts to prevent them, Black Tulsans rebuilt Greenwood using monies held in White banks, funds from Black insurance companies, and residents’ earnings. By 1930, Tulsa boasted 32 Black-owned grocery stores, more Black hotels than Harlem, a thriving stop on the chitlin circuit, and much more. Still post-massacre Greenwood showed deep signs of government neglect, predatory leasing and lending, and blight from overcrowding and disinvestment.
Racist Housing Policies
The early 20th Century urbanization of Blacks and resulting violence like the Tulsa Race Massacre led to a rapid spread of racially restrictive housing covenants. Codifying what future homeowners were allowed and prohibited from doing, restrictive covenants forbade the sale, rental, or leasing of many homes to Black Tulsans. The Supreme Court ruled racial covenants unconstitutional in 1948, but the legacy of these patterns is still visible in Tulsa, where covenants existed in Sunset Terrace, Maple Ridge, Brookside, and many midtown neighborhoods.
In 1933, the New Deal promised to rebuild the U.S. after the Great Depression. The New Deal created the federally-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to stabilize the housing market by refinancing mortgages. To identify home values, HOLC produced maps that identified the lending risk of neighborhoods using factors like housing age and prices, as well as residents’ race, ethnicity and immigration status. Areas considered “hazardous” were colored red, indicating they were a high risk to lenders. This practice of “redlining” African American neighborhoods severely limited Black residents’ access to private loans. Given that homeownership is the cornerstone of wealth acquisition in the U.S., this meant that most Black Americans were effectively barred from the most direct means of gaining financial security and stability. Further, redlining exacerbated housing segregation and entrenched the concentration of African Americans in low-income areas with few economic opportunities. Today, 74% of areas that were classified as “hazardous” are low-to-moderate income, and almost 64% are majority populated by Black and Latinx residents.
In 1944, Congress passed the G.I. Bill to provide returning WWII veterans with a host of benefits, including low-cost mortgages, business loans, unemployment compensation, tuition benefits for education and vocational training. Though the benefits were federal, their distribution was given over to local control and thus fell along racial lines, with White elites determining who would receive which benefits and how they would be applied. Consequently, the G.I. Bill largely reinforced inequality and widened the racial wealth gap. At even the most inclusive elite universities, Black students made up .5% of the student body, while Black colleges could not absorb the tens of thousands of returning veterans. Those who received job training or placement were funneled into unskilled, low-wage “black jobs.” In some states, less than a tenth of a percent of G.I. Bill-insured mortgages went to non-White homebuyers. The material gains experienced by G.I. beneficiaries, including generative assets, like higher education and homeownership, accrued wealth to White households while withholding opportunity from Black families.
Urban Renewal and Model Cities
Two mid-century U.S. domestic policies, Urban Renewal and Model Cities, ushered in the suburbanization of American cities and contributed to “White Flight”: the phenomenon of White Americans moving out of urban cores and into tract homes made more accessible by the highway system. Continued policies of redlining and housing discrimination created extreme neighborhood and economic segregation, with White homeowners increasingly moving to suburban houses and Black renters remaining in the inner city. Abandoned by White residents, downtown housing stock was left to decay. As a solution to blight, and to lure back the wealthy tax base, cities implemented federally-funded urban renewal projects, enabling them to use eminent domain to seize private property for redevelopment. The practice of clearing large tracts of land to make way for new developments earned these policies the nickname “urban removal” for how they uprooted vibrant, existing communities in those areas. Unable to access the credit or capital necessary to move into more expensive suburbs, these families were crowded into public housing complexes, often built on the least desirable land cleared by urban removal, on the footprint of their old homes.
Tulsa formed the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in 1953 and the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority, which later became the Tulsa Development Authority, in 1959. Together, they formed the first Tulsa Comprehensive Plan to secure federal urban renewal funding and create a “blank slate” for redevelopment beginning in 1961. The only project completed during the funding period was the Seminole Hills Project, a low-income housing development. Tulsa also participated in the HUD-funded Model Cities program, which focused on the Greenwood area and cleared 84.6 acres of land, once home to over 2,200 people and dozens of businesses, to make way for the University Center at Tulsa (UCAT) and other developments. Several of the Urban Renewal and Model Cities projects were left unfinished due to lack of funding, leaving vast tracts of land empty after having displaced thousands of families and business owners.
Urban Renewal programs also extended highway systems, including Tulsa’s inner dispersal loop: the land where I-244 now divides North Tulsa from downtown and the rest of the city was seized and razed in the 60s and the highway was completed in 1975.
The federal government eventually abandoned Urban Renewal, and many modern urban planners consider the policy a failure. In spite of the harm and destruction caused by urban renewal, some city leaders advocated for its continued implementation as late as the 1990s.
In recent years, depressed home values in Black neighborhoods, engineered by a combination of structural barriers to credit, discriminatory housing policies, and anti-Black bias in hiring and promotions, have resulted in a housing stock that is highly attractive to developers eager to capitalize on renewed interest in the urban core. The next story in this series will explore how historic housing and development policies paved the way to current gentrification in the Greenwood and Near North neighborhoods.
Photo credit: Oklahoma Historical Society