The Reconstruction Origins of Black Wall Street

Tulsa, OK in flames, 1921 (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre targeted and destroyed the city’s prosperous Greenwood District, home to a vibrant economy of Black-owned businesses that was known nationally as Black Wall Street. The Greenwood District’s origins are usually placed around the turn of the century with the development of the area’s oil resources. However, its emergence was also critically founded in the wealth of African Americans and Black freedpeople made possible by the region’s unique political and economic history of Reconstruction.

Before the area we know as Oklahoma received statehood in 1907, the region was known as Indian Territory. This unorganized territory served as home to the Five Civilized Tribes—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations—after their forced exodus from the southeast in the 1830s and reservation tribes originally from the far West. Members of all Five Tribes were chattel slaveholders and brought enslaved people with them during removal. Torn between the United States and the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Five Tribes experienced their own internal civil wars as their members fought for both sides. In the wake of the United States’ total victory in 1865, the federal government required the Five Tribes to sign new treaties in 1866, known as the Reconstruction Treaties. These treaties required significant land cessions in punishment for the Tribes’ support of the Confederacy, despite the fact that thousands of members of the tribes had fought in the Union army, as well as the abolition of slavery and, most importantly, the inclusion of their new freedpeople as tribal citizens.

These demands put Indian Territory into the vanguard of Reconstruction policy. Giving former slaves full and equal citizenship rights was not at the time a Reconstruction requirement for former Confederate states in the South. In receiving citizenship rights in their respective tribes through the Reconstruction treaties, hundreds of freedpeople gained access to tribal lands held in common. Land policy in the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations allowed citizens—Native and Black—to create their own property by improving land communally owned held by each Nation.

Most commonly in the Creek and Seminole nations, newly freed people built all-Black towns for their mutual physical and economic security and gained some representation in Creek and Seminole tribal governments.  This was the beginning of African American communities, like Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, that would remain prosperous into the early twentieth century. Access to land in the public domain gave freedpeople the economic boost they needed. As historian Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. explains, “in the succeeding thirty years, they developed a lifestyle that most blacks in the South would have envied.”

Land was central to southern and western freedpeople’s demands after the Civil War. In the wake of the Confederacy’s defeat, freedpeople throughout the South had advocated for the federal government to give them land. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor…We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own,” Baptist Garrison Frazier told General William T. Sherman in 1865. But measures to make land redistribution official Reconstruction policy were short-lived outside of Indian Territory. President Johnson quickly rescinded General Sherman’s famous Field Order No. 15, while Thaddeaus Steven’s attempt in 1866 to pass legislation redistributing confiscated land to freedmen was defeated in the House 126 to 37.

The Five Tribes’ governments, however, contested the federal government’s citizenship requirement for freedpeople and frequently ignored their rightful claims. Thus, land acquisition for freedpeople, especially in the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, did not always come quickly.  For most freedpeople in Indian Territory, land ownership arose primarily from allotment, the breakup of tribal lands in favor of individual private property ownership. Allotment began in Indian Territory the 1890s, although provisions for the process were included in the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties. While historians have substantively shown the harm of allotment for Native nations and its erasure of multiracial identity by enrolling tribal members on the basis of race, consequences that should not be minimized, the process in Indian Territory also formally recognized many freedpeople as members of the Five Tribes for the first time.

The Dawes Commission, which was charged with allotting the Five Tribes, was concerned about the status of freedmen within the Five Tribes from the very beginning. Finding the freedpeople of Indian Territory to be “moral, industrious, and frugal, peaceable, orderly, and obedient to the laws,” the Commissioners were appalled by their limited opportunities in the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations. Although the Dawes Commission’s very task was a violation of the tribes’ treaties with the U.S., the Commissioners believed that “the United States is bound by solemn treaty to place these freedmen securely in the enjoyment of their rights [and] cannot with honor ignore the obligation.”

The Commission sought not only to include freedpeople in enrollment, but also give them allotments of equal size. When the Choctaw and Chickasaw refused to include their freedmen at all, it was a non-starter for the Commission, despite its desire to sign agreements and begin enrollment. More likely to be recognized by the Dawes records than earlier tribal rolls, many freedpeople saw allotment as the culmination of their personal histories of slavery to freedom. For Betty Robertson, lack of a “blood” connection to the Cherokee nation had prevented her from gaining access to land after emancipation. Despite receiving land through allotment when she was too old to farm, she was proud of the accomplishment and what it said about who she was: “I got my allotment as a Cherokee Freedman, and so did [my husband].”

Whether gaining land through tribal citizenship after 1865 or through allotment, Black families gained substantive financial assets that opened new opportunities to build wealth. With these possibilities and the growing Boomer movement to open Indian Territory’s land to settlement, Black Americans came to see Indian Territory, just like White Americans, as a new promised land of opportunity. Fleeing the anti-Black violence of South, African Americans relocated to Indian Territory to make better lives for themselves as well. As the Langston City Herald, a Black territorial newspaper, saw it, the land openings of the 1880s and 90s offered “the last chance for a free home” while the presence of all-Black towns within the Five Tribes also drew migrants. Supported by their own network of western boosters, over 3,000 Black Americans had settled in western Indian Territory by 1890. By 1900, African American farmers in the territory owned 1.5 million acres valued at eleven million dollars.

Just as the federal intervention of Reconstruction gave birth to the unique set of circumstances that made Black Wall Street possible in the early 20th century, the violence that destroyed it echoes the anti-Black terrorism and consequences of federal withdrawal from civil rights of the Reconstruction era. Resituating the origins of Black Wall Street in its nineteenth century past, we not only better understand the history of this special place but also can also find evidence for the kinds of policies that work in supporting Black communities and their socio-economic independence, both past and present.​

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Alexandra E. Stern

Alexandra E. Stern is a political historian of nineteenth-century America and Native America and a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. She is currently an ACLS Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter @weSTERNhistoria.

Comments on “The Reconstruction Origins of Black Wall Street

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    thanks for this more nuanced take, was Black Wall Street really more Black Mainstreet? Seems like an important distinction as we consider the possibilities of a new reconstruction and how vulnerable main streets now are to Walmart style chains and other forms of extraction.

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