Tulsa | At the foot of the modern buildings of an anonymous street, a few discreet metal plaques catch the eye. “Grier Shoemaker”, “Earl Real Estate”: they bear the names of African-American businesses that were there before being destroyed in one of the worst racial massacres in the United States, in 1921.
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Rare indices of the past prosperity of a district which had earned the nickname of “Black Wall Street”, they prove that the history of Greenwood, historically black sector of the city of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, is not understandable thanks to the monuments that we see, but to those that are no longer there.
On the eve of President Joe Biden’s visit for Tuesday’s commemorations in Tulsa, and after a year punctuated by demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter movement, the killing resonates more than ever with the news.
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“They came and destroyed Greenwood, burned everything down,” Bobby Eaton, 86, a former African-American civil rights activist told AFP.
A century ago in this southern US city, the arrest of a young black man accused of assaulting a white woman sparked one of the worst outbursts of racial violence in the country. .
On May 31, 1921, after the arrest of Dick Rowland, hundreds of angry white demonstrators flocked to the local court, making the black population fear lynching, a common practice at the time. A group of black men, some of them armed, are mobilized.
The tension mounts and gunshots ring out. Fewer in number, African Americans are retreating to their neighborhood of Greenwood, known for its economic vitality and its businesses.
The next day, at dawn, white men loot and burn the buildings, pursuing the inhabitants to bring them down.
All day long, they ransack Black Wall Street without the police intervening, leaving behind only ashes and ruins, and killing up to 300 people. Overnight, nearly 10,000 people find themselves homeless.
President Biden said Monday that the U.S. government should “recognize the role it has played in snatching their wealth and opportunities from black neighborhoods,” including Greenwood.
In a presidential proclamation, the Democrat assured to want “to respond to old racial inequalities, via historic investments”. “We will never forget,” he hammered.
Blue cap on his head, T-shirt commemorating the centenary slipped over his shirt, Bobby Eaton does not forget. He is marked by this time which he did not know, but which he heard about as a child in his father’s barber shop.
“I learned a lot about the riots when I was very young, and it has never left my memory,” says this figure from the neighborhood.
For him, it was the prosperity of African Americans that brought about this destruction. “It caused a lot of jealousy, and it still is today. “
“This mentality that destroyed Greenwood still exists for the most part here in Tulsa,” he denounces.
In fact, racial tensions remain strong.
In the café “Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge” – named, like other businesses, in tribute to the neighborhood’s golden age -, Kode Ransom, 32-year-old African-American, long dreadlocks and a big smile, greet customers.
Happy co-manager of the business, he has one regret: not owning the walls.
“When people hear ‘Black Wall Street’ they think it’s completely black controlled, but actually not. “
Kode Ransom estimates that there are about 20 African-American businesses in Greenwood, but almost all of them pay rent.
“We are not owners,” he regrets.
An urban planning policy, called “urban renewal”, and carried out by the town hall of Tulsa in the 1960s, had the effect of driving out the African-American owners whose houses or businesses, deemed dilapidated, were destroyed to make way new.
The construction of a seven-lane highway in the middle of the shopping avenue has finished disfiguring the neighborhood.
“When Greenwood was Greenwood, there were 40 blocks, now it’s condensed on half a street, and even on that half, it’s not just Black Wall Street,” sighs Kode Ransom.
In the “Greenwood” art gallery, manager Queen Alexander, 31, arranges paintings that celebrate African-American culture.
She also pays rent, and it just went up by 30%. The opening of a large museum devoted to the history of the district, the “Greenwood Rising History Center”, which will be inaugurated on Wednesday, has caused this inflation.
One of her acquaintances, who had run a beauty salon for over forty years, was expelled. “She could no longer pay the rent,” regrets Queen Alexander.
Behind the bay windows of her gallery, the African-American observes gentrification at work.
“We now see white people walking their dogs, cycling, in neighborhoods where we would never have seen them before,” she explains, referring to the opening of a baseball stadium or a university. that she “probably would not have had the means” to afford.
For her, Greenwood without its African-American owners and its historic buildings is no longer quite “the Wall Street of the blacks”, but rather “a district with black merchant tenants”.
And “if tomorrow we are kicked out, it will be White Wall Street.”