Remembering Tulsa's Black Wall Street

CBS4's Danya Bacchus explores the history, including her family connection.

Video Transcript

- So that now at 5:00, it's an American story of prosperity, unthinkable loss, and resurgence. 100 years ago, Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood District was a beacon of wealth and development for African-Americans.

- But it was wiped away by racial violence in a matter of hours. CBS4's Danya Bacchus explores the history of Tulsa's Black Wall Street, including her family connection.

DANYA BACCHUS: This stretch of Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma was once a Mecca for Black enterprise.

SCOTT ELLSWORTH: You have more than 30 restaurants, you have clothing stores, hardware stores, a photography studio.

DANYA BACCHUS: The area known as Black Wall Street in the early 1900s was home to more than 200 Black owned businesses, among them, the Dreamland Theater and the Williams Confectionery, owned by my great, great grandmother Lulu Williams. Her husband John Wesley Williams owned an auto garage and chauffeur company. John, Lulu, and their son WD with the first Black Tulsans to own a car.

SCOTT ELLSWORTH: They were Greenwood royalty. They were one of the great leading families of the city.

DANYA BACCHUS: Scott Ellsworth is a historian and author of the groundbreaking "An American City and Its Search for Justice".

SCOTT ELLSWORTH: This was a place where African-Americans leaving the Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, Tennessee, came to get the boot of white supremacy off their throats.

DANYA BACCHUS: But in Oklahoma, the Ku Klux Klan was growing in force. And as Black Wall Street thrived, so did white supremacy.

MICHELLE PLACE: That jealousy of the economic success, which was just a part of what ultimately happens in Greenwood.

DANYA BACCHUS: A seemingly innocent incident on an elevator between a Black man and a white woman on May 30, 1921 set off a devastating chain of events.

MICHELLE PLACE: He could have stumbled, fallen into her, grabbed her arm.

DANYA BACCHUS: Michelle Place is the executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society.

MICHELLE PLACE: The story becomes exaggerated further. He had attacked her. The truth of the matter is we don't know exactly what happened.

DANYA BACCHUS: On May 31, a white mob gathered at the courthouse where the man was held, and so did groups of Black men from Greenwood trying to prevent a lynching.

MICHELLE PLACE: A gun is discharged, all hell breaks loose.

DANYA BACCHUS: The angry mobs then attacked Black Wall Street. They burned and looted homes and businesses. More than 35 blocks were destroyed. Thousands were left homeless. Those 18 hours would become one of the nation's deadliest acts of racial violence. Danya Bacchus, CBS News, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

- On Wednesday, Danya digs deeper into the horrific events of the massacre, including what her family experienced. Then on Monday, May 31, Gayle King will host a CBS News Special, Tulsa 1921, An American tragedy. Her primetime special will air at 10:00 PM right here on CBS4.