The average white family in the U.S. has a net worth of $ 171,000, while the average family of color has one of $ 17,150. That this tenfold wealth gap cannot be due to individual effort or laziness should be obvious to everyone.
It will come as no surprise to you that, as part of this little history series, I am arguing the daring claim that historical oppression and inequality are at the root of the still significant wealth disparity. After all, things like displacement and enslavement of Africans to North, Central, and South America do not cease to have an effect simply because slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 after the end of the Civil War. To put it in a nutshell: It doesn’t help you too much if you are legally free from one day to the next, but wealth, especially land ownership, political power and access to education remain largely out of reach.
Legal freedom did not mean legal, let alone economic or social equality. Instead of peace and joy and happiness, there were segregation, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.
But it all began with a visionary idea: In January 1865, the victorious army of the Union ordered the confiscation of land owned by slaveholders in the southern states and its distribution to former slaves. Each family was to receive up to 40 acres of land and a mule, so they could farm independently. (Yes, socialist land reform is actually a US-American invention. Take that, Mr Guevara!)
Unfortunately, nothing came of this idea because, as you all know, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. His successor Andrew Johnson was, according to unanimous opinion, one of the worst presidents in U.S. history and thus the professed role model of Donald Trump.
Andrew Johnson was also a racist and deemed blacks intellectually and morally incapable of owning land or running a farm. In the fall of 1865, he rescinded General William Sherman’s order. Many blacks, for lack of any other choice, had to return to the cotton plantations and toil as sharecroppers. What else could they do, when access to many professions was barred? Well, a rebellion would have been a possibility, but with “Spartacus” this idea only came to the movie theaters a hundred years later.
Speaking of a hundred years: Because this episode is supposed to revolve around events exactly a hundred years ago, in May 1921, we have to step it up a notch and cover the rest of the background so frenziedly that it brims with omissions and inaccuracies like a history textbook issued by the State of Oklahoma.
So, things continued to be uncomfortable for blacks in the Southern states. Fortunately, the U.S. was always finding new land in the West to take from the Native Americans. Not only whites were moving west, but also blacks and (involuntarily) Native Americans displaced from the east. Life in the West was not free of legal and social discrimination either, but there, blacks could farm land or work as cowboys.
And in some places, that is where whites considered the soil too bad and a strong enough black community came together, small centers of black business activity emerged. One such community was the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Located north of the railroad, the neighborhood was disparagingly called “Little Africa” by the white majority in Tulsa. There and over time, blacks opened their own stores, two movie theaters, two newspapers, restaurants, nightclubs, banks, several churches, a library. Black lawyers, doctors, accountants, photographers and other service providers settled there. When oil was discovered, blacks became owners of drilling rigs.
“Little Africa” had become “Black Wall Street”.
And that was a problem for many whites. Because segregation, still the law in many states in the U.S. until the 1960s, was based on the idea that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites. When whites see that blacks, too, are becoming lawyers and teachers, drilling for oil and pulling off all this capitalism wizardry, the white worldview wobbles.
And, as the old Southern saying goes, “when the worldview is wobbling, the black man gets a flogging.” The Ku Klux Klan was very active in Tulsa. Colored people were repeatedly mistreated and killed. Whites were also keen on the properties in the black neighborhood. They wanted them for their own businesses and to run the blacks out of town.
By the way, I’ve long wanted to mention that when I write “whites,” of course I don’t mean all whites. Because mist certainly, there were non-racists among them. But then I see photos like the following printed and mailed around the country as postcards, like a postcard from Niagara Falls. And then, I find passive non-racism pretty weak. Sometimes, you have to be actively anti-racist.
In May 1921, Tulsa was a tinderbox.
The fuse was laid by two unwary teenagers.
On 30 May 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old colored shoeshine boy, rode the elevator to the top floor of a building, which was the only one in the area with a restroom for colored people. The elevator was operated by Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl. Something happened. Or maybe it didn’t. In any case, Rowland ran out of the building, Miss Page reportedly looked startled, and a clerk notified the police. Although the elevator attendant testified that Rowland had only touched her arm and that she did not want to press charges, Rowland was arrested the next day and taken to a cell in the courthouse. (Ever since then, American men refuse to get on the same elevator with a woman.)
That same day, 31 May 1921, a distorted account appeared in the afternoon edition of the Tulsa Tribune under the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator”, with a reference to Rowland’s whereabouts in the courthouse.
That was the spark that broke the tinderbox’s back.
A white mob with arms advanced to the courthouse to demand the young man, obviously for lynching him. Blacks also armed themselves and went to the courthouse to protect the building from being stormed. The situation was extremely tense. When a white man tried to take a gun from a black man, a shot went off, and with that, all hell broke loose.
What followed were 16 hours of shooting, violence, looting, arson.
The fire department did, as pogrom protocol requires, nothing. The police distributed badges and guns to the white looters. As many as 300 people were killed, and thousands of colored people were interned.
Only the National Guard, arriving on 1 June 1921, was able to bring the white mob under control. But Black Wall Street, the successful black community, was completely destroyed.
Now the real estate could be gobbled up cheaply, the white citizens of Tulsa were hoping. But the blacks wanted to rebuild their neighborhood, even though all kinds of obstacles were put in their way. Insurance companies did not pay, citing the exemption for riots. The city council changed zoning and building codes to discourage reconstruction. Few victims received government assistance. But in the end, Black Wall Street was rebuilt.
And no one spoke any more about the events of 1921. No one was convicted. Hardly anyone learned about the massacre, but just as little, and perhaps this is the more important aspect, about Black Wall Street. Because successful blacks did not fit into the white concept. Not only in Tulsa.
Continued discrimination was sometimes quite overt, with racial segregation in schools, in public transportation, in restaurants, in parks. There were bans on marriage between whites and blacks, and many blacks were denied the right to vote. The former has been abolished; the latter is still a struggle.
Criminal law was also a popular method of perpetuating slavery under a different name. Blacks were sentenced to imprisonment on trivial or trumped-up charges and then “leased” to cotton plantations, sawmills and mines as laborers.
But, even if it doesn’t sound as dramatic as slavery or forced labor, another form of discrimination is probably more relevant for the wealth inequality between whites and blacks mentioned at the top of this article: the different access to mortgages, to bank accounts, to credit cards and other financial and insurance services.
This is because a major bedrock of wealth accumulation (not only) in the United States is ownership of real estate as well as inheritance of the same. Those from the working class or middle class who want to acquire a property usually need a loan to do so, usually secured by a mortgage on the property. In theory, the loan is based on the income of the home-building/purchasing family and the value of the land or its expected appreciation.
In practice, during the post-World War II boom years and until more recently, city maps were divided into different risk zones that ran along old racial segregation lines. For example, neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by blacks and Latinos were rated as such a high risk that the government would not guarantee mortgages there, making it almost impossible to secure a bank loan. (These were the so-called red zones, hence the term “redlining”.)
And this happened even when those neighborhoods were, on average, wealthier than some white neighborhoods! So, poorer whites got a mortgage more easily than affluent people of color. And because affluence almost automatically leads to more affluence, whites get richer and richer over the generations, while blacks’ income only makes landlords rich. (Yes, of course there are exceptions, but they are already included in the averages cited above.)
And now comes the most insidious issue: the interplay of racism and capitalism.
As people of color moving into a neighborhood reduces the chance of mortgages, property values in the neighborhood decline as a result. Hence, the white homeowners and real estate agents don’t have to be racist at all, but “only” act out of pure financial interest to reject black neighbors. The result of past racism is perpetuated by the market economy even if no one acted out of racist motivation anymore. (Which is not the case, as settlements from 2015 show.)
And thus, even though this is a story from a hundred years ago, it is far from over.
Oh yes, last year – 99 years after the events – Black Wall Street and the pogrom were finally included in the curriculum of Oklahoma schools. Even today, mass graves from 1921 are being discovered in Tulsa. – But then, my home country of Germany needs more than a hundred years to recognize a genocide as well. And recognition alone is not enough, because in Namibia, too, the current land ownership situation is a continuation of colonialism.
- All articles of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”.
- More history.
- More stories about the United States.
- I became aware of this issue through an interview with Mehrsa Baradaran. Her book is “The Color of Money”.
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Wow, thank you for this! Extremely informative, unsettling and eye opening. Incredible how society evolves so slowly and patchily, and we still have to wonder about our current blind spots that will shock future generations. History is for sure the way to go for you, especially along this great writing :) This piece resonates a lot with me, especially as someone researching land distribution and environmental justice in Africa.
Thank you very much for your comment!
I just highlighted a few points, there are many more issues, of course. For example, when soldiers returned from WW2 and qualified for educational and financial grants through the GI Bill, black servicemen were systematically denied the same benefits as their white comrades in arms:
Or the subprime mortgages, which almost brought down the financial system, were excessively targeted at African-Americans.
And so on, and so on.
I often listen to podcasts when I go for walks, and even now, I still remember where exactly in the fields on Bavaria I was walking when I listened to the interview with Prof. Baradaran. It was so eye-opening indeed, especially the multiple links between racism and the economic system.
The injustice is so deep, so grave and so long-lasting, it puts the issue of “reparations” in a whole new light for me.
I hope we’ll bump into each other one day, so you can tell me more about your research!
Now, let’s see what I will come up with for June 1921…
I wonder how many of your American readers will be reading about this for the first time?
Well, not *your* readers, we’re an intelligent group of people, right?😉
Thank you for writing about this unfortunately still relevant event.
I agree with you that simply not being racist isn’t enough.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
An American reader here. I honestly wasn’t reading about this for the first time, but I’ve lived in the US for 25+ years and only heard about this episode for the first time maybe a couple of years ago.
I learned about it from a friend who was born in Oklahoma. I was born and have lived my life thus far in California, and it wasn’t taught in my History classes. That may have changed since I finished school in the 80s, but I doubt it.
Although I always liked history at school, I can’t really remember what I learned at school (and what I picked up later and/or elsewhere).
But I honestly don’t remember learning anything about the German genocides in Africa, for example. Nor about the Holocaust against the Roma people and their continued persecution after WW2.
To be fair, for this series, I try to pick events of which I hope that they are new to some readers at last. To me, it was completely new until I listened to the podcast linked in the shownotes.
And even if you know your American history quite well, I try to move around the globe, so that there is something surprising from some obscure corner of the world from time to time. Actually, this year, there will be a few episodes from countries I bet nobody has ever heard of (and which don’t exist anymore).
Looking forward to it!
“La libertad jurídica no significaba igualdad jurídica, y mucho menos económica o social.” Quise leerla con tranquilidad y comodidad, excelente Andreas! Me ha estremecido como siempre lo hacen las historias “”insidiosas de la interacción del racismo y el capitalismo” en Estados Unidos.
En Bolivia tenemos nuestros propios capítulos, casualmente el avance de los colonizadores y republicanos sobre el territorio obligó a los pueblos originarios a refugiarse cada vez mas cerca del monte o chaco, tierras que por las condiciones geográficas y climáticas no eran atractivas para los invasores, justo allí bajo el suelo … los recursos naturales que irían a sostener a este país durante décadas. El resto de la historia en lo que respecta a la propiedad de la tierra es tan parecida, las mismas estrategias desde las esferas de poder, solo cambian los escenarios.
Siempre es mejor leer mis articulos con tranquilidad y comodidad, preferablemente con un habano o un chocolate caliente. :-)
En mi caso con un té de albahaca … un habano, lo siento me gusta el olor pero no es lo mío, una vez casi pierdo mi garganta al probar, me ahogue, es demasiado áspero.