• November 28, 2023

The Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed generations of Black wealth. This descendant is seeking ‘economic justice’

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on how to reduce racial and social inequalities.

Nehemiah Frank, the editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times, traces his father’s lineage back to William and Virginia Clark and Samuel Cherry, who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre but saw their property destroyed as a white mob ravaged 35 square blocks of the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood known as Black Wall Street.

An unsubstantiated assault allegation against a young Black man set the violence in motion, but white Tulsans had long stewed in jealousy over Greenwood’s economic success. Up to 300 people died, hundreds were wounded, and thousands of Black Tulsans were left homeless amid the arson, theft and murder that spanned May 31 to June 1.

Greenwood residents filed $1.8 million in property-loss claims, or about $27 million today, according to a 2001 report by a state commission to study the massacre. Because the massacre was initially characterized as a “riot,” most Black residents were unable to get insurance payouts for their destroyed homes and businesses, which they later rebuilt at their own expense. 

In fact, one 2018 journal article estimated that the destruction of 1,200 median-priced Tulsa homes would cost $150 million in today’s dollars, and the loss of other assets like cash, commercial property and personal belongings could push that figure over $200 million.

Cherry’s shoeshine parlor would later reopen, but the Clarks’ tailor shop closed for good, Frank told MarketWatch.

A Harvard University-led analysis of the massacre’s effects on Black Tulsans until 1940 estimated that it reduced average incomes by 7.3% and “led to a loss of wealth, lower occupational status, less educational attainment, and women being forced into employment.”

‘One hundred years after the worst race massacre in U.S. history, I‘m still seeking justice for my ancestors.’

— Nehemiah Frank, founder and editor-in-chief of the Black Wall Street Times

Frank, 37, who founded The Black Wall Street Times in 2017 and splits his time between Tulsa and Atlanta, is one of many voices now calling for reparations to address the massacre’s grim legacy — decades after the state commission concluded that “reparations are the right thing to do.” 

“My second great-grandparents lost their home and business. Unfortunately, they, like many other Black families, were never repaid for the losses,” Frank said in a recent video. “One hundred years after the worst race massacre in U.S. history, I‘m still seeking justice for my ancestors and recognizing our authentic community’s legacy.”

Relatives of people impacted by the massacre and 106-year-old survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, known as Mother Randle, are seeking reparations in a public-nuisance lawsuit filed last September that estimates Greenwood residents’ property damage totaled $50 million to $100 million in today’s dollars.

The suit alleges that city officials have enriched themselves by “promoting the site of the Massacre as a tourist attraction” without Greenwood and north Tulsa residents directly benefiting, and that Black Tulsans today experience enduring disparities in employment, financial security, education, housing, policing and health as a result of the massacre and subsequent city actions.

Michelle Brooks, a spokeswoman for Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Bynum, a Republican, has suggested reparations in the form of cash payments would be divisive. “Mayor Bynum has stated he does not believe this generation of Tulsans should be financially penalized for what criminals did 100 years ago, as the only option to bring monetary payments is to tax all Tulsans, including Black Tulsans,” Brooks told MarketWatch. 

She added that “addressing the legacy of the Massacre and making unprecedented investments in community-led redevelopment has been at the forefront” of the administration’s goals. 

Brooks shared a list of city-led efforts, including a new Tulsa Authority for Economic Opportunity to promote “shared prosperity and racial equity,” a redevelopment project for the city-owned Evans-Fintube site “to ensure ownership and wealth creation for the Greenwood community,” and the opening of Oasis Fresh Market grocery store in a longtime north Tulsa food desert.

The city will also launch a full excavation of the “Original 18” site in Oaklawn Cemetery on Tuesday to determine if individuals found in its last “test excavation” were race massacre victims, Brooks said. “When that determination is made, we can then move to next steps as it relates to DNA testing and genealogical research to bring some healing and justice to the Tulsa community,” she said. 

Reached for comment about this story, Demauri Myers, an analyst for the Tulsa Development Authority, told MarketWatch that the authority had “worked diligently” with community organizations and other community development financial institutions (CDFIs), the city of Tulsa and nonprofits to assist in the development of projects such as the grocery store and a small-business incubator to support minority entrepreneurship.

“Behind-the-scenes conversations have occurred with Tulsa city councilors, neighborhood association presidents and other community leaders regarding the types of development that should occur in Black neighborhoods,” Myers added. “That information has led to a better understanding of why those areas have been underdeveloped, and plans have been made to ensure that racial equality is priority when considering minorities for development opportunities.”

Ahead of observances planned to mark the race massacre’s centennial, Frank spoke with MarketWatch for a Value Gap interview about the power of generational wealth, what reparations would look like, and the challenges faced by Black business owners in Tulsa today:

MarketWatch: Greenwood’s surviving residents rebuilt, but they obviously lost millions of dollars. How do you process the lost potential of that generational wealth that was never passed down to future generations, including your own?

Frank: I can only describe my emotions. It’s disheartening; it makes me angry. And then when we call for restitution or we call for reparations, it’s like, “Well, they just want handouts. They just want cash payments.” 

‘Generational wealth — that’s a powerful thing that you get to pass on from one generation to the next. And if it’s disrupted, the generations that follow the disruption are the ones that suffer.’

We’re not even asking for a handout or a cash payment. We’re asking for people who are the descendants of those who committed the massacre in this city to hold the city itself accountable for the losses that we incurred during the massacre. 

Generational wealth — that’s a powerful thing that you get to pass on from one generation to the next. And if it’s disrupted, the generations that follow the disruption are the ones that suffer. Those who are lucky enough to not have to deal with the disruption, they’re the victors.

That’s pretty much what has been the city of Tulsa for the last 100 years. There’s a set of people who did not have to deal with a disruption, and a set of people who did — and then after that had to deal with the victors’ hegemonic system afterwards. That means we were subject to deal with any adverse racial policies that came after the massacre.

Nehemiah Frank (far r.), his aunt Demeta Gibbs-Brewer, and his uncles Christopher Jones and Terence Cherry — all descendants of the Clarks and Cherrys — next to a picture of Frank’s second great-grandfather’s shoeshine parlor.

Courtesy of Nehemiah Frank

MarketWatch: And it’s not just the loss of life and livelihood from the massacre, right? There was the highway construction and “urban renewal” in the ’60s and ’70s that destroyed the area all over again.

Frank: Absolutely. That’s what I’m talking about. There was that, there were the race-neutral policies that were passed as late as the ’90s. And now we have House Bill 1775, which pretty much makes it difficult to teach about white supremacy, racial hatred in this country. We teach those things to educate us, to build empathy within us for other people that don’t look like us.

[Editor’s note: Oklahoma’s governor last month signed into law H.B. 1775, a bill that observers say takes aim at teaching critical race theory in public schools. State Rep. Kevin West, a Republican who authored the bill, has said it wouldn’t impact history lessons; only prevent teachers from forcing students “to answer that they are inherently racist or sexist or that they must feel personally responsible for things perpetrated in the past by people of a similar race or gender.”

Critics of the bill, however, say it is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and would hinder accurate teaching about the 1921 massacre, which was left out of the state’s school curriculum for generations.]

MarketWatch: You’ve said that you are seeking justice for your ancestors 100 years after the massacre. What would justice look like to you?

Frank: Justice would look like paying the reparations, the restitution, with interest that has incurred in the last 100 years. I know that Harvard University has done a study on how much that would be today, and I believe that is what the city of Tulsa should be paying the descendants and the living survivors that are left from the massacre. And just putting that money into our community, period. 

That means better schools. That means finding a group of people who could help us build a hospital in north Tulsa. More grocery stores — we just opened the first [full-service] grocery store [in more than a decade]

That means economic mobility, like giving grants and making sure that the city itself has policies in place to ensure that racial discrimination when it comes to granting permits to build buildings and developments in north Tulsa aren’t just simply overlooked or passed away. Because that is what happened.

For the longest time in Tulsa, Black developers, Black contractors, construction workers, tried to go down and get permits to build in north Tulsa, and they were denied or ignored. And this happened decade after decade after decade.

And then people wonder, “Well, why is north Tulsa so underdeveloped?” It’s because when people that looked like me tried to go in and develop the space, they were denied such opportunities — even when they had the money to do it.

When it comes to taxes, annual taxes, we shouldn’t have to be paying any of that stuff. … Another form of reparations that should be coming from this city [is that] Black business owners should be having subsidized rent. That can make a huge difference. 

I have a friend who had a hair shop on Black Wall Street, on the Greenwood district, and she ended up actually having to move. She had to move, and it was just really sad because the rent was just too high. They literally priced her out of her own community. And so she had to move her shop way in a spot where she’s not going to get the same amount of foot traffic that she once had.

‘We have to use racial equity in order to fill in the gap until the data says that, “OK, well, we don’t need this anymore.”’

MarketWatch: Can you talk more about the challenges that Black business owners in Greenwood are facing today? Have they been able to capitalize on the growing national attention to Tulsa in recent years?

Frank: I would say that we are all capitalizing on the growing national attention in more than one way, but there’s not even enough of us down here to really feel the entire impact in our community. Had we had more Black-business restaurant owners in the district today, they would fill it. Black folks would be coming in and eating in the district. 

But instead, they have to go out to see people that look like them, and to get food that represents their culture. They have to go outside of the district.

MarketWatch: Can you explain why that is?

Frank: The rent is going up. … [People are] not educated on the impact of systemic racism, so they just treat the Black business owners like the white business owners. And it is an issue. I know we want to have equality, but equality isn’t going to solve the damage that has been done to the Black entrepreneur in this city. 

We have to use racial equity in order to fill in the gap until the data says that, “OK, well, we don’t need this anymore. We’ve reached that point where we don’t need it.”

MarketWatch: What do you think tends to get missed or left out of all these conversations we’re having about the Tulsa Race Massacre? What do you want people to know on this centennial?

Frank: The mayor and other people, including Black people, they will say that, “Oh, look at Tulsa. Tulsa is progressive. Tulsa is remembering the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. They are celebrating these celebrities coming in. They are reconciling with what happened.” 

That is not true at all. The data is not going to lie, and our people are still suffering in this city. We need economic justice.

MarketWatch: Does anything give you hope?

Frank: The younger generation gives me hope. Leaders like [Terence Crutcher Foundation founder] Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, people like [2020 Tulsa mayoral candidate] Greg Robinson and [Black Tech Street founder] Tyrance Billingsley — those are the people that give me hope.

Even Mother Randall and Mother Fletcher [107-year-old survivor Viola Fletcher], who testified in D.C., and I was with them when they testified. Their strength to last this long — that’s what gives me hope.

(This interview has been edited for style and length.)

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