Displacement in Tulsa, from Race Massacre to Disinvestment and Gentrification

Displacement in Black majority neighborhoods often stem from deeply rooted, complex, historically layered problems that require deep, structural solutions. A dramatic example is Tulsa’s most famous Black neighborhood, Greenwood, once known as for its thriving businesses and prosperity.
Mar 3, 2022
Andre Perry
Andre Perry
Senior Fellow
Brookings Metro
Stuart Yasgur
Stuart Yasgur
Economic Architecture

Originally envisioned as a territory for relocated Blacks and indigenous people, Oklahoma became a state in 1907. After oil was discovered there, Tulsa had so many wealthy Black residents that Greenwood became known “Black Wall Street.” But May 31 to June 1, 1921, Greenwood was the scene of the Tulsa race massacre — the worst such incident in US history up to that time. Mobs of white Tulsa residents, some of whom were deputized and given weapons by police, attacked and looted Greenwood homes and businesses. Firebombs were dropped from airplanes. As many as 300 Black residents were killed, 700 wounded.

It’s remarkable how much of the massacre and its aftermath revolved around destroying and acquiring Black-owned assets and asserting control over where and how Black people lived. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood — 36 blocks — and over 1200 were homes destroyed. The property damage is estimated at well over $30 million (in 2020 dollars). More than 10,000 Black residents were left homeless. Those who didn’t leave the city were moved into Red Cross tents where they lived for over a year. Black people who lived and worked in white neighborhoods as domestics were also beaten and dragged to the tent camps. Once in the camps, they weren’t allowed to leave without the permission of white employers, and when they did leave, they were forced to wear green identification tags. Nearly 8 million of these tags were issued in the year following the massacre.

Greenwood’s Black survivors were determined to rebuild, but the City hastily rezoned the neighborhood and rewrote building codes to stop them, largely by making it prohibitively expensive. Then a Klan-led City commission unveiled a master plan for the Black neighborhood to be relocated further north, leaving Greenwood’s valuable land to be redeveloped by the City. Later, it came to light that white businessmen had unsuccessfully tried to buy parts of Greenwood in the years leading up to the massacre.

Many Black residents rebuilt their homes and businesses under cover of darkness, defying the new rules, and in the 1920s Greenwood bounced back. But beginning in the 1930s, redlining made it difficult for Black residents to own property there. A raft of discriminatory housing policies combined to devalue Greenwood real estate, making it a prime target of urban “renewal.” A tangle of major highways and a ring road were built during the late 1960s and completed in 1971, slicing up Greenwood and the adjacent neighborhood of Kendall Whittier. “What the city could not steal in 1921, it systematically paved over 50 years later,” wrote Smithsonian magazine on the centennial of the massacre.

The Kendall Whittier neighborhood adjacent to Greenwood was a busy shopping district from the late 1920s through the 1950s, until it was bisected by the same highway project that also decimated Greenwood. By the early 2000s, Kendall Whittier was known for vacant storefronts and adult-oriented businesses. By 2010, its occupancy rate had fallen to 35%.

But community development and business recruitment and retention efforts turned that around. Kendall Whittier Main Street attracted $158 million in private investment and opened 40 new businesses since 2013. The neighborhood now has galleries, breweries, restaurants, and boutiques. The occupancy rate has rebounded to 100%. But at the same time, rents are rising, affordable housing is scarce, and lower-income residents are getting priced out.

“The investments have come to fruition,” says David Kemper, CEO of the non-profit Trust Neighborhoods. “But one of the unintended consequences is they displace the very renters and residents they were trying to benefit in the first place.”

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