Tulsa photographer Donald Thompson took the last images of business buildings rebuilt from the ashes of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre just before they were bulldozed to make way for Interstate 244.
There were a smattering of Black-owned businesses along Greenwood Avenue. It was 1967, and the district was going through an economic slump.
The ‘60s brought a lot of change fast. Desegregation meant dollars could be spent across the city; urban development bought properties cheap without rebuilding; and banks redlined Black neighborhoods out of approval for business and home loans. Flight from north Tulsa neighborhoods was in full swing.
It was in the middle of this when local and state leaders decided where to place an expressway through Tulsa.
Calling the Greenwood District’s economic downturn a ghetto, planners put Interstate 244, then called the Crosstown Expressway, right through the district. It ensured that Black Wall Street would never return to its glory days.
“It took the heart out of Greenwood,” Thompson said. “If this highway had not been put here, I think there would’ve been a resurgence, but Greenwood didn’t have the opportunity to rebuild.”
That expressway has frustrated developers and Black Tulsans who have tried to work around the monolith of concrete and steel and the noise that has come with it.
It’s not just a physical barrier; it psychologically isolated Black neighborhoods and businesses from the rest of the city.
But a glimmer of optimism has emerged from this half a century of disappointment and resentment.
Embedded in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan is $20 billion to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Also, 40% of that package would fund projects in disadvantaged communities through the Justice40 Initiative. Those goals would be tracked through a newly established Environmental Justice Scorecard.
“The President’s plan for transportation is not just ambitious in scale; it is designed with equity in mind and to set up America for the future. Too often, past transportation investments divided communities … or it left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options,” states the White House sheet.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told The Grio that the highways were constructed “at the expense of communities of color.”
Former Transportation Secretary Antony Foxx said much of the current infrastructure was designed and paid for prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act in “a time before Black people were at the table.”
The notion that transportation systems were built reinforcing racist norms isn’t new.
In 2015, the Washington Post did a census data analysis of neighborhoods near physical barriers in several major cities, including Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburg; Detroit; Hartford, Connecticut; and Shreveport, Louisiana.
All showed Black and Hispanic neighborhoods sectioned off from the rest of the cities by barriers such as highways and railroads. Tulsa can be added to that list.
North Greenwood Avenue is cordoned off by Interstate 244 on one end and a rail line on the other. The railroad was built in the 19th century and served as a seed for the city’s founding.
Black Wall Street grew to the north of the railroad on Greenwood starting in 1906 with a boarding house owned by O.W. Gurley, who had a vision to attract Black entrepreneurs to the budding town.
After the 1921 massacre burned the 35 blocks of homes and businesses, killing at least 37 people and possibly up to about 300, the district rebuilt. By the 1940s, it was thriving.
Thompson remembers the 1950s Greenwood with more than 2 miles of businesses on both sides of the street. It had everything: theaters, restaurants, grocers, clothing stores, hairdressers, auto mechanics, photo studios and professionals from doctors to accountants.
“People in this area did not have to go anywhere else to find anything they needed or wanted. They had it all here,” Thompson said. “A dollar would turn over more than seven times before it left this area. They supported each other.”
The 1960s led to an economic struggle that Interstate 244 made permanent. It was constructed as the north leg of the Inner Dispersal Loop to circle downtown with expressways linking to highways outside the city.
The demise of the Greenwood District was expected, as reported in a May 1967 Tulsa Tribune story headlined “An Old Tulsa Street Is Slowly Dying; Greenwood Fades Away Before Advance of Expressway.”
Reporter Joe Looney interviewed business owners being moved out with a photo of rubble from the torn-down structures. The story included comments from Ed Goodwin, publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, and L.H. Williams, a pharmacist.
“They remember the early days, when the first buildings were put up in the two blocks north of Archer Street. They saw the riot of 1921, when many of the buildings burned. They saw the street rebuilt, grow and prosper. They saw, too, as a slum festered.
“And now they are watching Greenwood Avenue die. Its business district will be no more.
“The Crosstown Expressway slices across the 100 block of North Greenwood Avenue, across those very buildings that Goodwin describes as ‘once a Mecca for the [Black] 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.”
In the intervening years, a fraction of Black Wall Street has been preserved. Most of the original Greenwood District is owned by the Tulsa Development Authority and the state’s higher education system where Oklahoma State University-Tulsa resides. The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce owns 10 brick buildings along Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street.
Interstate 244 “hemorrhaged growth” for Greenwood, said Freeman Culver, president of the Greenwood Chamber.
“Infrastructure definitely should be addressed,” Culver said. “If it could be removed or repurposed to allow for continued growth, it should be acknowledged the land should go back to the Greenwood Chamber. Historically the land was with the Greenwood Chamber.
“Greenwood and African-American businesses are resilient. They’ve always learned to make lemonade out of lemons. But with this infrastructure, it’s not just about removing the bridge; it’s about then communicating with stakeholders in the area to help them build more businesses.”
Many older Black Tulsans, like Thompson, remember feeling angry and helpless as the buildings were leveled. The expressway cut down Black-owned businesses but swerved around the white-owned properties south of the railroad and venues like the Cain’s Ballroom.
“In those days we were denied participation in the political process, both local, county and state,” Thompson said. “The Black community was not at the table, and their voices were not heard, and their needs were ignored. People were denied the opportunity to pass down generational wealth, and many left the state for better opportunities.”
It’s that lack of representation and dismissal of concerns then that follows through to today.
“It was an historical trauma,” Culver said. “There are still people in shock from it. It still stings.”
The expressway blunted development efforts. Business owners don’t want a busy interstate as a next-door neighbor.
The Vernon AME Church, the sole surviving building from the massacre, has been shaken and rattled by highway traffic about 170 feet from its south wall.
Developer Kajeer Yar will open 21 North Greenwood later this year at Greenwood and Archer. He developed the GreenArch buildings next door in 2013. He and his wife, Maggie, were involved in the Hille Foundation’s donation of the adjacent property for the Greenwood Rising History Center.
Yar calls himself a “weird optimist” that Biden’s infrastructure plan could become a reality. That would mean Tulsa could compete for federal funds to redesign the Inner Dispersal Loop.
“I think this is going to be something that could happen within 10 years,” Yar said. “It’s one of those big dream ideas for cities. Why not Tulsa? Cities will be getting those federal dollars, so bringing that money here could do this project.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the interstate to be built the way it is. There are some odd turns to it. Why was it routed that way? If it were to have gone straight through from east to west, it would’ve cut across First Street.”
Noise and rumbling from passing traffic makes the albatross of Interstate 244 worse. It was constructed with no sound walls, like those seen along Interstate 44 in south Tulsa.
A sound study that was completed during the development of the GreenArch building that found the expressway noise was louder than passing trains on the rail line.
“The people I know with skin in the game in the Greenwood area want to get rid of it,” Yar said. “When you look out beyond the expressway, you see some of the most beautiful land and hills in the city. And people don’t think about it because of the visual barrier of the expressway.”
By eliminating or even lowering Interstate 244 to below grade with sound barriers, land becomes available for development. This could seamlessly expand into north and east neighborhoods such as Brady Heights and Crutchfield.
This type of expressway redesign has occurred in places such as Dallas and Boston, Yar said.
“These ring roads send the wrong message about downtown. It shouldn’t be a fortress from the rest of the city; downtown should be open and welcoming,” Yar said.
Beyond the economics is a moral imperative, he says.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Yar said. “It’s a sign that we recognize the mechanisms from the past were misguided, and we’re redressing that now in Tulsa. … The psychological benefits to north Tulsa of removing the expressway would be well worth it.”
Later this year, the Pathway to Hope pedestrian walk will open, linking the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park to notable Greenwood landmarks. Some of Thompson’s photographs will line that trail.
Thompson’s work is internationally known, with pieces hanging in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., in local galleries and on permanent display at OSU-Tulsa. He has published two books, “Hush, Somebody’s Callin’ My Name” and “And My Spirit Said, Yes!” His third book will be out in 2022.
He’s a photojournalist who gets to know his subjects and their stories. He knows Greenwood well.
“I’m optimistic about the state of the country today,” Thompson said. “The youth of today and the next generation will have a say in what will come next. They will dictate what our country and Tulsa will become.”
As he looks at Interstate 244, Thompson points to spaces and names the businesses once there.
“I worked at night and came during the day to get photos before the bulldozers destroyed Greenwood,” Thompson said. “They went about it so haphazardly without any forethought. They were fast, and I was trying to outrun them. My true regret is not taking more photographs.”
When hearing about the movement and federal proposal to reunite communities of color, his spirit lifts.
“Anything is possible,” Thompson said. “With the strong faith, right resources, people working together, and local and state governments working for the betterment of all, any community can thrive again.”