April 13, 2024

A New Generation of Black Entrepreneurs Wants to Recapture Greenwood’s Past

Reggie Cooper, a Black Tulsa, Okla., native, opened the Muscle Squad Lab, a personal-training facility and health-supplement shop, in January to put down roots in the city’s historic Greenwood district after working for years as a personal trainer.

In and around Greenwood are trendy coffee shops and breweries, a minor-league baseball stadium and a college, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. Banks of on-demand scooters, like those found in urban neighborhoods around the country, line the sidewalks.

All signs point to a revitalizing neighborhood. Now Tulsa faces a debate over what role Black business- and property-owners should play in it, and what policies would work best to support them.

“To be here is a blessing, to come back where it’s a lot of hurt and pain,” Mr. Cooper said, referencing a 1921 race massacre in Greenwood and government-led redevelopment programs that later reshaped the district. But Mr. Cooper said he wants to move beyond paying rent for his bricks-and-mortar space, a goal he isn’t sure is possible in Greenwood. “Honestly, I’d rather it be owned by Black people, because this is where it all started.”

The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 destroyed hundreds of Black-owned businesses and homes in the city’s Greenwood District. A century later, entrepreneurs and activists are working to preserve “Black Wall Street’s” memory while pushing to rebuild and recover what was lost. Photo: Rob Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal

Tulsa, where today fewer than a fifth of residents identify as Black, is among U.S. cities grappling with racial inequality and development decisions that might have exacerbated the problem. White Tulsans are 17 times more likely than Black Tulsans to be business executives, and the median household income for white residents is almost double that of Black residents, according to data compiled by the city and a local nonprofit.

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Local leaders say Greenwood’s legacy makes it a symbolic anchor for the city’s efforts to rectify past wrongs. The neighborhood has a connection to Black entrepreneurship and property ownership; its once-thriving business district earned it the moniker Black Wall Street.

A fall-rise-fall story arc followed. White mobs in 1921 killed Black Greenwood residents and destroyed the district’s roughly 35 city blocks. Residents were able to rebuild the area over the next few decades, but its second heyday was fleeting. Government decisions to demolish buildings in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, relocate businesses and run a highway through Greenwood helped empty out the district. Local historians and residents also say the civil-rights advancements of the era gradually made it less prohibitive for Black residents to live and spend dollars outside the neighborhood, undercutting commerce in Greenwood.

Reggie Cooper, a Tulsa native, opened a personal-training facility and health-supplement shop in the historic Greenwood district this year.

The Greenwood district today is roughly four city blocks, though its modern boundaries aren’t well defined. More than two dozen businesses are registered with the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. A majority of those enterprises are Black-owned or operated. Some newer Black-owned businesses are tenants in buildings owned by large institutions and white developers, a reversal from years earlier when most property owners in the segregated neighborhood were Black.

“We’re not Black Wall Street, but we are Black Main Street,” said Freeman Culver, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, noting that the community dynamics have shifted.

After years of prodding by descendants of massacre survivors, government officials and local business groups said they are working to prioritize honoring the legacy of Greenwood, and they are trying out some new policies that could help Black Tulsans build wealth.

The Greenwood Rising history center is under construction.

Part of the reason that hadn’t been a focus until recently, longtime Greenwood advocates say, is because local and state political bodies often lacked Black representation. There is currently one Black member of the nine-person city council.

Tulsa government officials say they are sensitive to concerns raised by residents in seeking to prevent the displacement of Black businesses and manage housing affordability in modern-day Greenwood, two issues that contributed to the area’s decline in the mid-20th century. “Those are all things that I think historically we just hadn’t done, but I think it’s something that we’re focused on now,” said Kian Kamas, Tulsa’s economic-development chief.

Restoring the neighborhood’s luster faces long odds. The community assets such as doctor’s offices, grocery stores and churches that once populated the neighborhood largely sit outside its boundaries. Some residents in Oklahoma’s second-largest city are wary about the government’s role in redevelopment while others are at odds with private interest groups. Competing visions also exist on how to best preserve Greenwood’s history.

Some advocates for minority-owned businesses say a centralized business district for Black-owned firms is likely unattainable. Parcels of land previously held by Black property owners have been chopped up and sold several times over since the 1921 massacre. The Black residents who once populated Greenwood aren’t there any more, with many living now in other North Tulsa neighborhoods. And some argue that a segregated business community, a necessity before the advancements of the civil-rights era, may be less beneficial today.

The city has granted incentives for redevelopment projects in the area.

Inside Tee’s Barbershop along Greenwood Avenue.

“Rebuilding Historic Greenwood to what it once was in 1921 will be impossible in that location. But we certainly can build the mind-set of Black business owners to thrive wherever they are,” said Rose Washington, chief executive of the Tulsa Economic Development Corp., a lender for small businesses that might fall short of conventional lending standards. Ms. Washington is leading a new incubator the city announced this week, which is expected to funnel at least $1 million of city funding to build up Black businesses.

Other cities like Durham, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., had Black entrepreneurial centers that thrived in the 20th century, but they faced a similar fate as Greenwood, said Cy Richardson, a senior vice president at the National Urban League. He said that restoring those districts as enclaves of Black enterprise would take a level of government intervention that policy makers haven’t yet expressed.

“Rather than improving the standards of our communities, the city turned these spaces into highways, apartments and public facilities, and we’ve lost the institutions that bind communities together,” said Mr. Richardson, referencing what happened in Tulsa and other Black neighborhoods.

Greenwood today: A loss of ‘institutions’

The modern-day Greenwood is surrounded by the entertainment-venue-laden Blue Dome District and the Arts District, a booming area that has been buoyed by local banking magnate

George Kaiser’s

family foundation. “It’s boxed in and it’s pretty complicated to unbox,” Jim Coles, the city’s economic-development director, said of the current neighborhood.

Though Greenwood has been underdeveloped for decades, city leaders say developers are increasingly interested in the district and nearby areas because of their proximity to the largely built-out downtown. Tulsa officials offered tax incentives to five redevelopment or new construction projects completed in Greenwood, Blue Dome and the Arts District between 2004 and 2014, according to city records. The city granted incentives to at least 17 projects in those areas with completion dates between 2015 and 2024, documents show.

One of those projects resulted in the most prominent building on a stretch of Greenwood Avenue, a multistory apartment-and-retail complex. The project was developed by the Hille Foundation, run by a local family that earned its wealth in oil and natural gas. Some Black business tenants at the development pay below-market rent, according to a Hille family spokesman.

The GreenArch apartment complex on Greenwood Avenue features business spaces, a restaurant and an art gallery.

The George Kaiser Family Foundation is considering ways to build wealth among Black residents as part of its development initiatives, according to a person familiar with the foundation’s operations. Since 2010, the group pumped about $100 million into the Arts District for green spaces, apartments and art galleries.

Mr. Kaiser said focusing on Black entrepreneurship in the Greenwood area had been a slowly evolving process. “We had to be sure that the elements of the program we adopted emanated from the community and had strong support there,” he said.

One recent project that has divided residents is Greenwood Rising, a new history center dedicated to the 1921 massacre that aims to generate attention for the district and its economic future. Some locals doubt that the project alone will boost Black wealth.

“There’s no policies that help with housing, homeownership, Black entrepreneurship, land ownership, education—there’s nothing coming out of there to address any of that,” said Kristi Williams, chair of the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission, an advisory panel to city leaders.

Supporters say the center—slated to open in a limited capacity next month on a site that previously was a street-level parking lot—is expected to give a jolt to the city’s blossoming tourism business and support additional neighborhood development. State Sen. Kevin Matthews, who is chairman of the commission leading the project, said a key takeaway from the history center’s exhibits is that re-creating Greenwood as it once was is likely impossible.

Tulsa International Airport

Tulsa International Airport

Tulsa International Airport

“We don’t have that continuity that we once had, and the government is complicit in that,” said Mr. Matthews, a Democrat whose legislative district includes Tulsa.

Guy Troupe is the owner of the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge coffee shop, located across the street from the new history center. He said Greenwood today doesn’t yet line up with his vision of a strip of hundreds of prosperous Black-owned businesses along Greenwood Avenue. But he thought the only way to change it was to get involved, a mentality that drove him to open his cafe last year.

“I would like to see a central business [district] where every entrepreneur who grew up in Tulsa could have a chance to participate,” Mr. Troupe said.

Dominick Ard’is isn’t a Tulsa native, but he saw an opportunity to build Black entrepreneurship in the city. He decided to get a new accelerator, ACT Tulsa, off the ground late last year, and moved to the city this spring. His group is in the process of funding roughly half a dozen early-stage startups. The goal, he said, is for the majority of them to be minority-owned and from Tulsa. But even that might fall short of a broader objective to widen access to capital.

“We don’t believe that our effort is going to be a savior,” he said.

‘It Has Needed Government Intervention’

Blake Ewing, a former city council member, said for decades there lacked a political consensus—and power—to achieve the goal of putting Black wealth at the center of Greenwood’s redevelopment efforts. “It has needed government intervention in terms of leadership and vision…that this is a priority for us as a community,” Mr. Ewing said.

The city has tried to lure developers with tax-increment financing, or TIF, a tax-rebate package meant to attract development in a given area. Activity in Greenwood-area TIFs has increased over the past few years, but tax incentives valued at millions of dollars have largely benefited white-owned companies, according to city officials.

Site of the Greenwood Rising museum that is also under construction.

Members of Tulsa’s economic-development team say there are legal hurdles that restrict cities from creating race-focused programs, but they are learning other approaches the city can take.

For example, the city is seeking proposals to develop an 11-acre industrial site in the historic Greenwood district. The city will soon evaluate proposals that have an objective to “create ownership and wealth-building opportunities for members of the Greenwood community.” Another space near that project will soon be home to the headquarters of USA BMX, the bike-racing organization.

Vanessa Hall-Harper is the only Black member of the Tulsa City Council.

That tracks with a separate effort City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper is promoting to require developers to reach public, nonbinding agreements with residents about how land will be used. Ms. Hall-Harper said government and private enterprises need to be more willing to treat Black community members as partners to correct its prior decisions, like urban renewal, which she calls “urban removal.”

She said that Black Tulsans had good reason to be skeptical of local government’s new initiatives given its prior posture toward Greenwood. “It sounds great, but we’ll see,” she said.

Residents also have memories of efforts that harmed Black business development. Sam Burns said that through urban renewal, the city paid his grandfather $60,000 to acquire his grocery store at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Newton Place, several houses his grandfather rented out and the two-story house adjacent to the store. “Everything else I can remember—tailor stores, restaurants, grocery stores, theaters—all of them have succumbed to urban renewal,” he said.

Black entrepreneurs in Greenwood today say their success isn’t indicative of any government economic-development strategy. Rather, they see themselves as continuing Greenwood’s legacy of creating opportunities despite a lack of infrastructure meant to support them.

“We’re hitting the ground running, we’re hungry, we see the vision,” Mr. Cooper said.

A view of the highway that runs over Greenwood’s main strip.

The Tulsa Massacre | 100 Years Later

Write to Joshua Jamerson at joshua.jamerson+1@wsj.com

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