Tulsa Historical Note

A quick follow-up to a previous post.

In the discussion of my post, Thinking about the Past, Matt Bernius noted the following piece from the Smithsonian Magazine from 2021, Decades After the Tulsa Race Massacre, Urban ‘Renewal’ Sparked Black Wall Street’s Second Destruction. It was buried pretty deep in that comment thread (plus, I am sure many readers do not dive into those discussions), so I thought it was worth a quick post.

Since part of the point of my post (and its companion (America’s “Family Secret” or Just Plain Denial?) was about the generally incomplete (if not absent) understandings we have of American history on the topic of race it seems worthwhile to note that I learned new information from the article. Moreover, the piece further emphasized the point I was trying to make in Thinking about the Past, which is how the treatment of Black populations in the past has had clear implications for how we have arrived at the present condition of economic and social development in the United States.

Specifically, the article notes that even after the Tulsa Race Massacre, the residents of the Greenwood community in Tulsa rebuilt, only to have their community again disrupted later by highway construction projects, a common story across American Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.

First, a basic reminder of the toll of the Massacre which started, as much violence against Blacks did, over accusations that a Black man behaved inappropriately with a white woman.

In December of 1921, Red Cross relief leader Maurice Willows compiled a report with a more accurate account of the destruction of Greenwood. The report estimated a death toll of just under 300 and 714 wounded. It also reported that his team of 44 staffers and several volunteers had provided aid to more than five thousand people, and that of the 1,256 homes that were destroyed, 764 were already being rebuilt.

The piece details the legal hurdles put in place to prevent any rebuilding and the efforts the residents undertook to nevertheless do so.

The piece goes on to talk about the second destruction of this community.

What often gets erased in writing about the Tulsa Race Massacre is the 45 years of prosperity in Greenwood after the attack and the events that led to the neighborhood’s second destruction: The Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1965 and 1968. As early as 1957, Tulsa’s Comprehensive Plan included creating a ring road (locally dubbed the Inner-Dispersal Loop, or IDL); a tangle of four highways encircling the downtown area. The north (I-244) and east (U.S. 75) sections of the IDL were designed to replace the dense, diverse, mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian, and transit-oriented Greenwood and Kendall-Whittier neighborhoods.

An article in the May 4, 1967, issue of the Tulsa Tribune announced, “The Crosstown Expressway slices across the 100 block of North Greenwood Avenue, across those very buildings that Edwin Lawrence Goodwin, Sr. (publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle) describes as ‘once a Mecca for the Negro businessman—a showplace.’ There still will be a Greenwood Avenue, but it will be a lonely, forgotten lane ducking under the shadows of a big overpass.”

Despite these protests, the construction of the IDL was completed in 1971. Mabel Little, whose family lost their home and businesses in the 1921 massacre, rebuilt and lost them both again in 1970. Little told the Tulsa Tribune in 1970, “You destroyed everything we had. I was here in it, and the people are suffering more now than they did then.”

What the city could not steal in 1921, it systematically paved over 50 years later.

Since a huge way that individuals progress is via some level of inter-generational wealth accumulation, these kinds of ongoing blows to a community’s development (already in the context of slavery, Jim Crow, and so forth) would clearly have broader effects. And to be clear, I am not talking about massive wealth accumulation. I mean the ability of one generation to give some level of support to the next. Whether it be having a home where a young person can live as they establish themselves (or having a home to go back to if there is some kind of personal financial disruption) or being able to help with college or just a little help with a car repair or the like can be huge.* But if generation after generation is being held back, or actively made worse off, there is a toll.

At a minimum all of this is striking that often in urban areas the Black part of town is considered the “bad part” and it is not hard for white people, in particular, to assume that well, “Black neighborhood” equals the “bad part of town” and to further conclude that it is the bad part of town because it is Black. But all that ignores the toll of segregation in housing, alongside issues like redlining, white flight, voter supression, and the construction of highways and freeways in those neighborhoods.

And yes, of course, some individuals are able to overcome these circumstances and some who have advantages don’t benefit from them. The issue is not a one-by-one parsing, but a question of mass-level effects. Just because Bill Cosby** had the most popular TV show in the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey is a billionaire, and Barack Obama was elected president doesn’t mean that racism is over in America and we can now move on. And those are all things I have heard cited in my life as proof that racism has basically been fixed.

At any rate, more food for thought and I recommend the linked piece in full.

*If your car breaks down and you can’t afford to fix it, your ability to work could be severly curtailed. If Mom and/or Dad can help out either by paying for the fix outright or even via a small loan, life is cool. But if you don’t have that situation, you may be in huge trouble . Again, I understand that many people are successful without such little helps. But I would suggest that a large number of folks benefit constantly from such things. I know I did. And perhaps the fact that I have three sons in the 20s that I am keenly aware of the phenomenon.

**If the reader will forgive the reference.

FILED UNDER: History, Society, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Generational wealth, it do make a difference. Just ask the trump spawn.

    eta: FTR, it certainly helped me.

  2. Kingdaddy says:

    Your recent pieces on racism and memory have been terrific. Thanks for writing them.

  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    You DO get that ain’t nobody ever gonna appoint you Commissioner of Education in Florida after these posts, right? Otherwise, good points well made. Thank you!

  4. CSK says:

    This piece is very, very good.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    Steven, you are still associated with an Alabaman university, right? Do you get any pushback from these types of commentaries?

  6. @MarkedMan: I am and I have not.

  7. JKB says:

    “white flight”. I would think you would be aware of the “Curley” Effect, where urban politicians enact policies to push those who might oppose them, usually wealthier whites, out of the city voting precincts into the suburbs. Curley himself did it to reinforce his poor Irish voting block, but Coleman Young did it to Detroit with his black voters.

    Are we to condemn people for responding to “nudges” from Democrat politicians and experts?

    Having lived through “block busting” I found it kind of sad. Black families moved in, others did move to sell before home prices declined, but what’s more the city suddenly put Section 8 houses in the area facilitating the same behavioral class of people the original blacks had moved away from moving in. I noticed this as a middle schooler. By the time I got out of college, the neighborhood was much more crime ridden. Down at the crossroads where I rode my bike in the late ’70s was a good place to get shot in the 2000s, but I have heard of so many shootings of late so maybe the community has aged.

    Don’t worry, it’s not a race thing, but more an undisciplined teenager thing coupled with the racism instilled in those teenagers so they see older white ladies as viable targets.

    But in your quest for more racism, I suggest this Q&A with the author of a book on a leader of black education before desegregation. She blames Nixon for using federalism and telling governors to just get desegregation done instead of riding herd on the Democrat controlled states such as Georgia. Guess who lost their jobs when schools integrated? Black teachers and administrators. Use your surprise face.

  8. Thomm says:

    @JKB: I love the game where ideology hides behind party labels when a conservative wants to obliquely point fingers in conversations about civil rights history. Yes Conservative Democrats did that. But, as Strom Thurmond and others showed later, they were conservatives first; democrats second.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    You miss a rather obvious point. Yes, in the past, both parties were blatantly racist.

    In the present, only the Republican Party remains a racist party.

    We progressed, you regressed. We rose from the slime, you wallowed in it.

  10. DrDaveT says:


    Generational wealth, it do make a difference.

    This — and not just financial wealth, but social wealth. Status, connections, speech habits, knowing which fork to use — it’s a wide spectrum with massive cumulative effects. I got a little bit of cash from my parents; they paid for most of a college education at a top University, and violin lessons, and books and records. But I got a ton of culture and education and social graces and a neutral midwestern accent from them that have been just as valuable.

  11. DrDaveT says:


    Are we to condemn people for responding to “nudges” from Democrat politicians and experts?

    Here we go again with the people who can’t understand an issue if it isn’t about who to blame…

  12. Modulo Myself says:

    Status, connections, speech habits, knowing which fork to use — it’s a wide spectrum with massive cumulative effects.

    Purely anecdotal, but one of thing I’ve noticed with artists is that having parents who were in the arts is a huge help–not exactly with training (although that matters if both of your parents know that you have to start early with classical music if you want compete)–but with being okay in life and flourishing while in a field that’s very precarious. There are definitely unspoken things a child learns watching parents figure out how to make it work while being a painter. These things are subtle and involve dragging ‘success’ into a dark alley and making it yours rather than the world’s.

    My take is that as with the arts, there’s an unspoken set of norms about flourishing that upper middle-class people tend to pass on. If I’m prejudiced in my career fake life, it’s against sincere people who start ticking boxes right away as if they are yearning to impress me. A: They shouldn’t, because I’m mostly an idiot. B: It can be a bad sign regarding real problem-solving skills and the ability to chill out and think rather than react. But these things are definitely not things taught to people who are striving.

  13. @Michael Reynolds: I continue to marvel at people who think that historically accurate descriptions of Democratic behavior are some kind of gotcha (i.e., that there were racist Dems in the past, especially in the South).

    I say that not necessarily endorsing JKB’s history lesson, insofar as I only skimmed it.

    But sure, do I think segregationist policies were pursued by Dems in Alabama? Of course, I do, because it’s true–especially since most of the elected officials in the state in, say, 1960, were Democrats.

    I am sure that Democrats were in charge of Dallas (they certainly were of Texas) when I watched members of my family engage in white flight themselves in the early 1970s.

  14. Modulo Myself says:

    I also think it’s amusing that the complaint levied against learning about American racism involves deep dives and obsession. Any source on any history is the product of an obsessive deep dive. There are no half-assed sources on history. You can learn bad history and be half-assed about what you learn, but you can’t learn from half-assed history because it doesn’t exist except in large-scale surveys where they cover 100 years in 10 optimistic can-do pages.

    I honestly believe that what the dwindling number of critics of learning about racism in America want is a half-assed history of racism. It’s what they are comfortable with. You can dive deep into every day and hour of Gettysburg but with race, hell no.

  15. @DrDaveT: Even basic knowledge. My parents were both college grads, that was helpful. Neither of them had graduate degrees (although my mother did start a master’s), so there was not much knowledge to pass on about pursuing a Ph.D. But if my kids decide to go, I can provide info that they otherwise might not get.

    Being a college administrator gave me knowledge that was helpful to my kids that others did not have access to.

    Indeed, not only do the things I noted in these posts not lead to inter-generational wealth, they don’t lead the kind of inter-generational knowledge middle-class families can pass on to their children.

  16. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I marvel at the pitch that it would be somehow better for minorities not to support the party that tries to help them, because in the past it was racist. Best to support the party that’s racist in the present.

  17. @Kingdaddy: Thanks!

    @Modulo Myself:

    You can dive deep into every day and hour of Gettysburg but with race, hell no.

    Indeed. Better make sure that the uni and weapons are period accurate!

    @Kathy: Indeed x100.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Are we to condemn people for responding to “nudges” from Democrat politicians and experts?

    This is why I don’t even bother. “Black people are responsible for white flight.”

  19. mattbernius says:

    Here is the section from that interview that was referenced:

    KAPPAN: Was the federal government helpful at this point?

    WALKER: Not much. Under the Johnson administration, the government had been a champion for a while, creating funding streams like Title I, which it tried to use as a lever to promote equity. By the late 1960s, though, things had changed. All the allies that Black leaders were counting on to implement desegregation were gone — Dr. King, too. And under President Nixon, the mandate was simply to get it done, not to ensure that it would be done justly.

    It didn’t take long for people like Dr. Tate to realize what was happening. When the federal government turned its back, Southern governors and school boards did whatever they wanted. Remember, the school boards were still 99% White. They understood that they would have to integrate (just like White Southerners understood they had to free the slaves at the end of the Civil War), but they did everything they could to subvert the intent of the Brown decision. What was supposed to benefit and protect Black children became an effort to preserve the “rights” of White children. Black educators knew it and howled about it, but who was listening?

    Of course, massive numbers of Black educators were fired. When schools were integrated, anywhere from 30,000-50,000 of them were let go in favor of White educators. Or if they kept their jobs, they were demoted and stripped of any real responsibility. Excellent, veteran Black teachers were assigned to be bus coordinators. Black principals were assigned to “schools” that had no students, just so the school board could say they had integrated the workforce.

    At no point does she hang this on Democrats (or Republicans) in the interview. Further, to the degree she critiqued the Federal Government throughout the excellent interview, it’s that they didn’t follow through on commitments. In fact, she clearly expresses her support for Federal Decisions like Brown v. Board (“Don’t get me wrong: The Brown decision was a huge victory, and we must continue the legal fight for access at a time when it is in retreat”).

    Frankly, her entire interview seems to focus on how this is a result of systemic racism. And with quotes like “The Brown decision was a huge victory, and we must continue the legal fight for access at a time when it is in retreat” suggests that she sees this, not as a historical issue, but also as an ongoing problem that via policies and actions that have continued long after the political realignment of Southern Whites is done.

    In other words, it’s kinda the point that Steven is making in the core (and excellent) post.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Good to know. As someone who actively resents the “Baltimore is a running gun battle” meme, it’s incumbent on me to not fall for the “Alabama is X” meme. Both Baltimore and Alabama have enough problems without adding memes to the mix.

    Sometimes all I can do about my own prejudices is to challenge them.

  21. MarkedMan says:

    @JKB: I wish I coud completely condemn your post, but block busting was very real, at least in Chicago. My immigrant parents lost their hard earned first home to such a tactic. They were not going to be forced out and so held on until all their equity had disappeared. In later years there were rumors that the real estate developers had hired thugs to come into the neighborhoods and drive the hold outs out. As I understand it, the deal was to charge exorbitant fees and interest rates to the black families moving in, and then foreclose in a heartbeat once they missed a payment. Seize the property, evict, and then lather, rinse, repeat. It took two generations for that Chicago neighborhood to recover.

  22. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But sure, do I think segregationist policies were pursued by Dems in Alabama? Of course, I do, because it’s true–especially since most of the elected officials in the state in, say, 1960, were Democrats.

    I am sure that Democrats were in charge of Dallas (they certainly were of Texas) when I watched members of my family engage in white flight themselves in the early 1970s.

    At the risk of repeating what I just wrote–this is completely true. And it’s worth noting that in many cases the overall policies and policy directions remained in place even after the great Southern Political realignment.

    There could be many (overlapping) reasons for that being the case–ranging from the same general groups remaining in power and just switching parties to there being a true transition of power between parties but the new parties not seeing an issue with the conditions that have led to the overall status quo).

  23. matt bernius says:

    @MarkedMan: Completely agree with your point about blockbusting–which in itself is a great example of how systemic racism goes beyond just direct governmental actions. It’s also worth calling out how it’s also an example of how nongovernmental parties react to policy changes (like the implementation of fair housing laws).


  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    Frankly, her entire interview seems to focus on how this is a result of systemic racism.

    NOOOOOOOO!!!! I’M MELTING! I’M MELTING!! AAAAAAAAARRRGH!!! You just can’t go around saying stuff like this without trigger warnings. [sigh]

  25. Gustopher says:


    Black families moved in, others did move to sell before home prices declined, but what’s more the city suddenly put Section 8 houses in the area facilitating the same behavioral class of people the original blacks had moved away from moving in.

    Skipping all the thinly veiled racism (let’s be charitable and just assume he picks up language from his choice of media), there is a very tangible (but missed) point here: Section 8 helps people get a roof over their heads, but it doesn’t make them better at life or take care of other problems.

    Some people need more help than just a roof over their head. They need a job, or drug treatment, or mental health treatment or to learn basic life skills.

    I wouldn’t want to add more burdens to the poor receiving assistance by mandating regular evaluations and hoops to jump through, but… Section 8 voucher recipients seem like a group that should get a bit of attention.

    (I would be ok with hoop swapping, removing some burdens and giving them social workers that can evaluate needs beyond housing, and make sure they are getting all the services they qualify for. But hassle neutral, if not reducing hassle.)

    We also tend to cluster services (I thought Section 8 was just vouchers, but I might be wrong, or JKB might be being imprecise) in locations where the local government can get land cheap. Services attract people who need services, some of whom are a problem.

    We absolutely need to do a better job of distributing services in other neighborhoods. Accessibility becomes an issue, but there are lots of things that can be placed in “better” neighborhoods to share the burdens.

    (There’s a home for the emotionally disabled behind my house — it’s pretty self contained in terms of services, but there are some noise issues. It’s fine, and we should do more of that)

    And, back on topic of race — living with racism adds stress. Stress triggers lots of issues. You’re going to find a disproportionate number of people who experience racism among those who need help.

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Section 8 used to provide funds for building housing back when I was a kid, but now it supplies an inadequate number of vouchers for rent subsidization. In places where Section 8 housing was not all “redeveloped” for the general market (I live in such an area) there is still a small quantity of genuine Section 8 housing. The current wait in my area is about 18 months. Or more.

  27. Monala says:

    @Gustopher: My local Habitat for Humanity has moved into a direction of building neighborhoods, not just individual houses randomly placed. They purchased vacant land in an economically depressed community, built about 20 or so houses, and also built several community buildings to house social services, community gathering places, and small businesses.

  28. Monala says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I also want to thank you for this excellent article.

    I took notice of your mention of the Red Cross assessing the losses from the Tulsa massacre. I learned through Ancestry that my grandmother graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, about a decade after the massacre. This school is where the Red Cross set up headquarters after the riots, to tend to wounded and displaced people and do the kind of documentation noted in the Smithsonian article.

    There was no high school for black students where my grandmother’s family lived, so my great-grandparents sent her and her younger sister to live with relatives in Tulsa. And thus, my grandmother became the first person in my family to graduate from high school.

    A generation later, my mom, my grandmother’s oldest child, would become the first person in the family to go to college, attending an HBCU.

  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    When I was 16 I had dropped out of school and turned up in California working for my grandfather, who had embraced the stereotype by being both a used car dealer and a slumlord. I collected rents from ~20 rentals that he owned in Long Beach. We had a lot of Section 8 people and some of them were undoubtedly frauds. Some though would be living in a pup tent in Venice Beach nowadays, because they were not all there. We had a dude who literally did the tinfoil thing from Better Call Saul. Sometimes my uncle by marriage (my first crime partner, awww, chickenshit skimming) would try to help someone out, get them going in a new direction, especially if they had kids. Did not work. Not mentally ill, just fucked up people.

    I should mention for @JKB’s sake: these were all White people. In those days that part of LB was a White ghetto. That, and my grandfather, who was a genuinely funny, smart, interesting dude, didn’t like renting to schwarzes.