Ep. 2: Oklahoma: A Promised Land
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
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To understand the rise and eventual fall of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, it’s important to understand the racial dynamics that contributed to the massacre in the first place. These dynamics really started to become pronounced when the discovery of oil began to attract various people of different ethnicities to Oklahoma from across the country. But there are other reasons Oklahoma is seen as a land of opportunity during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
“As a busboy at the Chamber of Commerce, that is where I first had a chance to meet the different oil people.” ~Alfred Barnett, late Tulsa Reverend.
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Michelle Place, Executive Director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum
Connect with: -Tulsa Historical Society and Museum Executive Director, Michelle Place by visiting: https://www.tulsahistory.org/contact/ -Professor Eugene Harrod of The College of the Muscogee Nation by visiting: https://cmn.edu/staff-and-faculty/ Resources: 1. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=TU013 2. https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/ 3. https://www.tulsa2021.org/
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Rough Episode Transcription
in partnership with the Tulsa race massacre, Centennial commission. I'm Nia clerk. And this is black wall street, 1921.
Without the discovery of oil in the Tulsa area and throughout Oklahoma, it is very likely that black wall street or the Greenwood district of North Tulsa, as we know it would have never existed. Many African Americans in Greenwood benefited greatly from the business end development that the discovery of oil in the region generated for Tulsa.
Valuable commodities often attract large populations, which in turn spur commerce, Oklahoma, however was unique during the early 20th century because of the large amount of oil that was being drilled. According to the Oklahoma historical society for 22 years, between 1,919 35, Oklahoma ranked first in oil production among the mid continent.
States, which also include Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. And for nine additional years, Oklahoma ranked second, during that period, the state produced more than 900 million barrels of oil worth, approximately five point $28 billion after the discovery of a huge oil deposit and then nearby community called red fork.
In 1921, Tulsa became a boom town, attracting a slew of new investors along with their families, generating numerous jobs, some refer to Tulsa as the oil capital of the world. As a small example of the sort of job opportunities oil created for African Americans in the Tulsa area at that time. You're about to hear historian and author Eddie Faye Gates interview a man named Alfred Barnett about what it was like to live and work in Tulsa in the early 20th century, after the Tulsa race massacre.
But when oil was still a spring, the state's development.
It's Tulsa was booming. All rich, all people came from all over the United States because of the oil fines and red fork and all of the other places near Tulsa, Jenks and so forth. A hotel business was building. We have the, uh, So hotel, the Alvin hotel, the Mayo, and these were scenes of all kinds of events involving the rich, uh, all men and other businessmen in Tulsa.
Mr. Alford Barnett was a waiter at that time, a way to run a bus boy and many of these hotels. And he, his path cross some of these, uh, rich millionaires. And today we want to hear from this man, uh, mr. Barnett, would you tell us what it was like, uh, waiting on and seeing these rich old man at that time? Uh, it was a pleasure.
And, uh, as a bus for, at the chamber of commerce, that is where I first had a chance to meet, uh, the different or people in me because they would come to the chamber. I didn't know any of them personally, but. Whenever they were around, you could always hear a whisper in the air, somebody with norm, and they would tell you who they were.
To understand the rise and eventual fall of Tulsa black wall street. It's important to understand the racial dynamics that contributed to the massacre in the first place. These dynamics really start to become pronounced when the discovery of oil begins to attract people to Oklahoma from across the country and overseas.
But there are other reasons. Oklahoma is seen as a land of opportunity during the late 19th century and early 20th century, aside from native Americans and African Americans who arrived via the trail of tears and were given land through the government's native American allotment land policy ranchers from places like Texas came to the region in search of new pasture.
The government soon opened the land for settlement for large number of migrants and immigrants. Many African Americans were fleeing the oppressive and racist policies of Southern States in America. As a result, a variety of people, of different cultures and ethnicities. We're all searching for opportunity in one region.
And this may not have been potentially problematic and these events were not happening just several decades after the. Slavery and the forced removal of native Americans from the South Eastern United States and a country that had been torn apart during the civil war in part, because of slavery and had a complicated history.
When it came to race to explain further, I've turned to Michelle, please. Executive director of the Tulsa historical society.
you move into the 1890s. There's more Western settlement. And then all is discovered in Pennsylvania, Indiana, et cetera, et cetera. And then we're figuring out that there's probably all more in this part of the country. So the first, well that was drilled in Oklahoma was in Bartlesville. And then we discovered that there is a wall in what is now Tulsa.
Just on the West bank of the Arkansas river. So that's in 1901, but it's in 1905 that the largest oil field in the world is discovered just a little bit Southwest of today's Tulsa in an area called Glen pool. And. So now it's really a different set of circumstances because there are those who want to buy and sell the land and the mineral rights.
So the Daws that is coming in at that time and all of this is to get rid of Indian culture and to Americanize European eyes, everybody. In Indian culture, the land belong to the tribe, not to the individuals. Okay. So this is a whole new way of thinking when the Dawes act comes and the allotment. So every member.
Who is counted through the Dawes act, every member of the tribe, and they are given a certain amount of acreage and each tribe is treated differently the way that's figured. Um, in some areas it was, everybody gets this many acres in other areas. It was, um, Depending on how good the land was. If the land wasn't as good, if it was Rocky, you couldn't farm it, then you might get more acreage.
So it's hard to paint with a broad brush and say, this is how it happened for everybody because it's very complex and it's different from tribe to tribe. Okay. But, but nevertheless, particularly in the Creek nation, these freedmen were also. Allotted acreage. Okay. So now you have a group of people who have, or just a few, a generation or so past enslavement, they have no concept of individual land ownership.
They have no concept of money. They have no concept of paying taxes. Um, another thing that happened was the Friedman were charged taxes on their property, but if you had enough blood or the blood Indian blood or the blood quantum. You weren't, you didn't have to pay taxes. So it's all very convoluted. So again, you know, you're just really still in the barter system.
I'll trade you a bushel of apples for a designate eggs or whatever the ratio would be. So moving into this more monetary system is very difficult. That's going on at the same time. Okay. You mentioned 1905. And that was also the year that these five tribes try to submit a constitution in an attempt to form a separate Indian state.
Um, would that state have been in what we know is Oklahoma as well? Yes. So that's sand. That is Indian territory. And then, um, there were people, um, proponents, let's say that of. Indian territory, which would be called Qualia after the great, um, uh, Cherokee Sequoyah who wrote the alphabet. And then you would have Oklahoma territory where those were the public lands that were opened up through the 1889 land run.
Okay. Right. So what also plays into whether it comes into one state or two happen to be between Democrats? And Republicans, when they got to Washington, would you have four senators or would you have two senators? Were they predominantly Democrats at the time? And who's the president Teddy Roosevelt Republican.
So it would have changed the dynamics of. Congress had you come in into States. We also have the beginnings of rumblings of prohibition and then women's suffrage or the women's right to vote. So you have a large contingency who do not want women. To have devote. And one of the compromises finally for Oklahoma statehood and coming in as one state, is that one?
I don't remember. Sorry. I don't remember exactly who said it, but they said, Oh, go ahead and give them prohibition because we can always get that back. But if we give women the right to vote, we will never be able to take that away from them. Right. Yeah. So the, the great compromise for statehood was over prohibition.
And David came in 1907, correct? Correct. November of 1907. And that's when the Oklahoma territory were combined with the Indian territory to create what the state of Oklahoma. Exactly. In 1907. Yeah. Boy that is convoluted. It is. And you know, when you really think at all of the factors, as I said, from women's suffrage to prohibition, to the flipping of the house in the Senate, in terms of majority.
Minority parties. You've got a Republican president, you have this all that's been discovered. And so people coming to Indian territory, wanting to come and make their fortunes in the oil industry from, uh, not only immigrants from Europe, but all of those, um, just. Who weren't going to inherit those plantations back in the Southeastern United States, they weren't going to inherit the manufacturing plants.
They were looking to make a life of their own. Of course you have many, many women who are widows because of the civil war and. There's something about owning your own land and not being under the thumb of a company store. So there were a lot of things that were happening. And so we're already starting to see the beginnings of many different types of people in one area, one land, and sort of the dynamics of manifest destiny.
As you mentioned earlier, And just really having to scrap right. For what you get and work hard to keep what you have. And also with that, as you mentioned, freed men or black people who are beginning to understand what it means to own land and maybe native American people, who've already understood the importance of having their own land.
Land, land ownership may mean something a little different to them being indigenous to North America. As opposed to even black people or your cans at that time. And this kind of all contributes to some parts of Oklahoma being home to all black towns and communities, having more towns in communities, in any other state in the land at that time.
Yeah, I think it's planting the seeds for unrest, if you will. And if you look at the human condition, what we all want is to live in peace, to keep our families together and to prosper, whatever that, that means. And I often think about the former slaves and I asked myself what would have been the most important things for them.
And it seems to me. That you would want, first of all, to keep your families together, to know that there's no one who's going to come in and sell your wife or your children or your mother, so to keep your family together and to be able to support them. And if you have been denied the right to read. Or to get an education that that would be a high priority.
And so what we see in Oklahoma and the beginning of this black migration, black towns, black settlements were advertised as this. I don't know utopia, if you will. I mean, you'll come here and you can live in peace and you can prosper. And there were advertisements that went back to the Southeastern United States selling this Indian territory or Oklahoma as this place of.
Respite and where you could prosper. And so that also contributed to the numbers of blacks that came here. In addition to those who were already here because of coming with the five civilized tribes and the context behind that is that in the Southeastern United States and just in the South in general, you're still dealing with people, perhaps former slave owners who don't want to accept that the fact that slavery is over and you don't want to accept it.
That black people in the United States will be able to be a legitimate part of society. You have Jim Crow laws, and all sorts of really brutal tactics meant to sort of keep black people subjugated. And so a lot of people who came from the South to Oklahoma were also fighting for their lives, essentially.
Exactly. So reconstruction and Jim Crow and those who. Were sharecroppers. And we know how that went in terms of being able to earn a living and still this white supremacy and seeing people of African descent, particularly being subhuman. You also have, now these Europeans who are coming in and there's definitely a hierarchy.
Within that system. We have antisemitism Jews, particularly out of Eastern Europe, Russia who have been subjected to pogroms. You look at Italy for one, and those who came from the most Southern parts of Italy were seen as less than those from the Northern part. We're looking down on the Irishman. We're looking down on Germans, but what the Europeans are seeing, and this is a hasty generalization, is that even though they were poor, maybe uneducated, they were saying, well, at least I'm not black.
I have it. Been a slave. We have those things that are clashing, but we also see a number of blacks who were beginning to get education at Howard and Millhouse and Spellman, and are very educated and that drive to prove. They're worse. And so that also comes to Oklahoma, that green their educations with them and, and wanting education for their children.
And what's interesting about that is when you talk about Oklahoma, there was a lot of opportunity for people who were able to have tenacity and, and really the drive to survive. Right. But there was a lot of classes in as well. Right. And there were poor African Americans and there were African Americans who were beginning to build wealth and there were poor whites and there were white too, had already a substantial amount of wealth.
And because as you mentioned of the oil fields and the discovery of oil, It really put Oklahoma on the map in terms of a place of opportunity and a driver of economic prosperity, but not everybody was on equal footing. So when you talk about setting the seeds for sort of that division, a lot of white people who were seeing black people prosper.
We're sort of resentful of fat and black people who were prospering. We're always reminded that no matter how much they succeeded, they would always be black. And thus, less than that, I think you summed that up. In a nutshell. Good job. That's exactly it. Um, and I think the next big turning point, well, first we need to absolutely recognize that what makes Oklahoma different from a town in Mississippi is the oil well, At this and what med system and whether you were the amount of Indian blood that you had versus how much you had being of Indian and African American descent.
It is the oil industry, the discovery of oil and having those allotments and those mineral rights that sets Oklahoma apart. From everyone else. So yes, that is where the wealth begins to come from. So what's happened now is back then in the 1910 to the 19 teens, is that you have these black towns scattered all over Oklahoma, but they're small little villages.
And so if you're an attorney or you want to be one, or you want to be a pharmacist, They began to leave these small towns and to come to what we now know as the Greenwood area, which is really in. The Cherokee nation just barely. I mean, the main divider, the main street is, is right there. So that's where that original wealth comes from.
Eugene Harris. Professor at the Muskogee college, you have the discovery of oil. It starts to pop up in various parts of Oklahoma. Now, native Americans. Have historically been using oil for a very long time using it, for example. Well, that would seep up from the sediment from the ground using it for medicinal purposes.
Right. Not like in like large quantities. Right, right, right, right. Yes. So, um, what was it like. Do you, do you think for, you know, your ancestors to see other people come in and start to drill the land for this oil, this resource, if your answers just have been using for many years before, some people got very wealthy, there's a tribe for the West of us called the Osage and a number of them were murdered.
And during the 1920s and a lot of the, well, all of these murders are still at saw. But they would be killed for their allotments. And, uh, again, it's especially to get to the oil. And you did mention that at the time oil was starting to be discovered. There were a native Americans who were becoming wealthy as well.
Tiny percentage of them. I would say more Osage would kill further oral. I wonder though, does the Creek nation have some sort of consensus or collective sentiment or opinion about the fact that oil probably similar to land was used in common among the people. Of the land where native Americans who lived on the land or hunted on the land and then for Europeans and Caucasians to come in and drill that oil.
Was that also a difficult concept for them to grasp in terms of drilling it as a commodity, as opposed to using it in common. I don't think, uh, when oral was drilled in mass, it was that big of an issue as to the commonality of ownership anymore. I think by that time, the allotment era had already been set in and the mindset became different or, okay.
Yeah. This is by private tract of land and for girls here, but only a small percentage of, of, of natives became enriched.
I guess I wondered as much as perhaps other people, other settlers, other Friedman were able to benefit and prosper from the development that oil brought to the region. I know you mentioned a lot of Osage were killed for their oil, but there was other development. There were other businesses that were being formed as a result of the discovery of oil.
Right? So whole communities were being formed because of the. Commerce that oil, uh, spawn and I wondered were native Americans able to participate in that development or did they just kind of stick to their own traditions and their own trading system? Or I think it was a little bit of both. Uh, I mean the area where I grew up, I can't recall any, any stories, any narratives.
In our oral histories where people got really involved in the oil industry, you would hear occasional stories where, or it was discovered on somebody a lot in Atlanta and they became enriched by that. You needed Americans to bank. Land was still owned at comm prior statehood. Prior to a lot of its lab was still a lot of cotton, but a family might take a parcel of land, not as their all, but they would farm it and market marketed what the crops became, you know, we're ready to go to market, but corn has always been.
A focal, uh, plant that we've, uh, we have, uh, we still have our annual green corn ceremonies where we celebrate the harvesting of corn. Once we plant corn, we donate any corn products to them. So the corn is harvested. This is one of our traditions. So, in other words, you had some native Americans who were participating in this U S economy and you had other native Americans who were existing and almost creating this insular economy similar to the way that the so called black wall street or in Greenwood district created.
Where they did business or among themselves much less degree, then the black wall street
here again is Alfred Barnett who lived and worked in Tulsa in the early 20th century during the oil boom.
as a bus boy, I worked for the chamber. It, my job. Uh, everybody was really interested in me. They helped me as a word. Um, The wait for the waiters that waited at the chamber of commerce. We were peeping. We couldn't go in, we just peeked at the door and I could hear the women talking and whispering of what was going on.
And I heard one of the wages. They said that they had felt short of their goal and mr. made up the difference. And when mr. Mayberry made up the difference of what they were supposed to have, he sang a song don't. Fence me. And that was one of my real experience at the chamber from then on. I began to move on, uh, at different places.
Working at the Tulsa club
in the next episode, we'll explore how black wall street came to be and how the people who lived there used obstacles to their advantage to build it. Be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast on Apple podcasts. Or on your favorite podcast platform. And don't forget to check out our social media pages, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, just search black wall street 1921.
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