Black Wall Street, Collective Memory, and Reparations

African Americans in Tulsa, 1921 / Alvin C. Krupnick Co. (Wikimedia).

Of all the Black-owned businesses that thrived on “Black Wall Street,” it is the Dreamland Theatre that stands as the central symbol of all that was lost in the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Established by Louella and John Williams in 1914, the Dreamland embodied the bold ambition of Black entrepreneurship on every level. The theater’s name acted almost as a poem as it captured in one word the magical reverie patrons found when they entered its doors and momentarily escaped the toil of their everyday lives. For Black Tulsans, the theater offered a place where people could enjoy not only their favorite acts touring through the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A), the African American vaudeville theater circuit, but also catch the latest movie releases during the golden era of Black silent film. For the Williams family, the Greenwood “Dreamland” was the crown jewel of their theater empire, which included two other establishments in Okmulgee and Muskogee. The Dreamland theater chain was one of the most profitable Black-owned businesses in the state and, by 1921, local press reported the family’s net worth at $150,000, (approximately $2,200,000 in 2021).

The story of the Dreamland Theatre and its brutal demise in 1921 is significant in two key ways. First, it was a key example of how Black business owners invested in the production and circulation of Black culture in ways that were politically critical during the birth of modern America. Second, Dreamland Theatre has played a pivotal role in the collective memory of the Tulsa Massacre in terms of understanding current debates about the reparations owed to Greenwood’s Black community in 2021. 

To look first at the Dreamland’s history, it is essential to situate the business in the broader history of Black theater ownership and Black film production in the 1910s-1920s. As Cara Caddoo documented brilliantly in her book, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, African American filmmakers and theaters were central to helping Black communities around the country navigate Jim Crow segregation through modern means. The Dreamland Theatre, with its “two-story brick edifice (rather than a cheap storefront), ‘high-class’ entertainments, and the most ‘proper’ type of management—a husband and wife team,” was the epitome of middle-class respectability, but it was exactly this level of achievement that made the business a target of White supremacist rage in May 1921.

The popularity of Black theaters grew in tandem with the rise of Black vaudeville, but profitability increased with the emergence of silent film. Race and racism completely shaped the dawn of the film industry with the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, just one year after the Williams family opened the Dreamland in Greenwood. Griffith’s epic, based on Thomas Dixon’s Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansmen, glorified the Ku Klux Klan, denigrated Black people, and demonstrated the terrifying power of celluloid technology to bring “Lost Cause” ideology to life on the silver screen. African Americans across the country, who had protested Dixon’s novel and play, stood up in dissent against The Birth of a Nation, a campaign galvanized by the leadership of William Monroe Trotter, founder of the NAACP and editor of the Boston Guardian

Most significantly, the Black film industry, led by Oscar Micheaux, sparked to life in the wake of the outrage wrought by Griffith’s film. Micheaux, similar to the Williams family, was an entrepreneur whose economic savvy was completely shaped by his experience as a Black “pioneer.” Though born in Illinois in 1884, Micheaux moved to South Dakota as a young man to begin a new life as a homesteader. His experiences on the South Dakota plains inspired his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, published in 1913, which he adapted into his first film, The Homesteader, in 1919. Put simply, the Black film industry and the stories it told were inextricably linked, not to the glamour of Harlem, but to paying homage to the courage of the Black pioneers. One can only imagine how mesmerized Black Tulsans must have been to screen a film like Micheaux’s The Homesteader in the splendor of their own Dreamland Theatre.

It was, however, Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork, Within Our Gates, that may have had the most direct connection to “Black Wall Street” and the horror that would descend on the Greenwood community on May 31, 1921. First released in January 1920, Within Our Gates acted as a direct counternarrative to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation through its plot, which completely subverts White supremacist myths about Black male sexual aggression against White womanhood. In the film, Micheaux depicts a brutal lynching scene, but then, through a series of flashbacks, reveals that the true sexual predator of the story was a white man, who, unknowingly, once attempted to rape his own bi-racial daughter. 

Electrifying in its audacity in exposing White supremacist lies, Within Our Gates, stood as a vital Black-produced cultural intervention at a pivotal historical moment. The film both responded to the horrors of the “Red Summer of 1919” when race riots broke out across the country and foretold the terror to come on May 30, 1921 when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old “Negro bootblack,” stumbled into an elevator in the Drexel Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma and brushed into Sarah Page, a young, White teenager who was operating the lift. The chance encounter and Page’s accusation that Rowland physically assaulted her ignited the conflagration that became the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Dreamland Theatre, which actually may have screened Within Our Gates that previous year, did not survive the ruthless violence that consumed “Black Wall Street” in the days that followed. 

The tragic demise of the Dreamland gained new currency in collective memory when it became the central narrative hook in the opening of HBO’s 2019 limited television series, Watchmen, an adaptation of the 1986 DC Comic series of the same name. The first episode opens with a mesmerizing shot sequence that recreates the outbreak of violence on Greenwood. At the center of the scene is a young Black boy, Will Reeves, who sits alone in the theater palace riveted by a western that glorifies Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. Marshal west of Mississippi River. As the terror descends, Reeves’ parents spirit him away as the theater burns to the ground. The legacy of the massacre and its aftermath defines the plot of the entire of the series.

When accepting the Emmy award for “Best Limited Series” in September 2020, Watchmen producer, Damon Lindelof, donning a “Remember Tulsa ‘21” t-shirt, thanked Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose now-canonical “The Case for Reparations” article in The Atlantic inspired Lindelof’s idea to reimagine Watchmen to raise public consciousness about the history of the massacre. Significantly, the same month that Lindelof accepted the Emmy award, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons filed a lawsuit at the Tulsa District County Court on behalf of the victims the Tulsa Race Massacre, including 105-year-old survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle, and their descendants. The case seeks reparations from the city of Tulsa for a century of financial devastation on the local Black community. The timing of the lawsuit and the Emmy-award for Watchmen was not mere coincidence, but a clear reflection of how the popular television series had raised national public awareness of the crimes committed.

In sobering twist to the turn of these events, the Watchmen series has driven interest in the Greenwood business district as a site of “cultural tourism.” Most profoundly, however, the Centennial tourism boom has, as the Washington Post reported, largely—if not completely—shut out African American entrepreneurs. As the story documents, while the city of Tulsa was eager to revitalize the Greenwood district “ahead of an anticipated influx of tourists for this year’s centennial of the 1921 bloodshed…[s]ome $42 million in city tax incentives and loans—race-blind under Oklahoma law—has largely benefited White-owned firms that won the majority of contracts to develop lucrative parcels closest to downtown” (italics mine). Black-business owners–including Guy and Yvette Troupe, who own the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge coffee shop—are left to fend for themselves as tenants, rather than owners, on Greenwood Avenue in what Troupe views as “the final execution plan” of Black Wall Street that began on May 31, 1921. 

What does this disturbing history teach us on the Centennial of the Tulsa Massacre? Foremost, the history of Black entrepreneurship is central understanding how African Americans empowered themselves in modern America—both economically and culturally. Secondly, we cannot underestimate the ways in which popular culture, whether it be Black-produced films or television series that foreground Black history, shape collective memory in ways that are deeply political and have direct economic consequences for African American communities. Finally, the fight for reparations for the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre can never rest as long as the financial benefits of marketing this past are “race-blind.” The crimes never were. The efforts to commemorate the tragedy should not be either.

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Suzanne E. Smith

Suzanne E. Smith is a Professor of History at George Mason University. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University. She specializes in African American history with a particular interest in exploring how the history of African American entrepreneurship can transform our understanding of African American culture. She is the author of 'Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit' (1999) and 'To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death' (2010).