Tulsa's Greenwood District -- The 1921 Tulsa Racial Riot and a new YA Historical Fiction Novel


Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Today I am going to share a young adult novel set in 1921 in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Do you know about Greenwood? Perhaps you have heard of it as the Black Wall Street? Or maybe have heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot? Before I share the novel with you I thought I would tell you about Greenwood and the Tulsa Race Riot. 

Black people arrived in Oklahoma with the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. Some were slaves and some were freed. Some of these Black people became citizens of the Native American nations. After the Civil War, due to the negotiations between the U.S. Government and the Native Americans land some of the Black tribal citizens were granted large parcels of land. As a result some of the Blacks welcomed other Southeastern Blacks and were able to form dozens of all-Black towns in the region. In fact in 1890 Edwin McCabe met with President Benjamin Harrison to try to get the Oklahoma territory turned into an all-Black state. 

In 1901, oil was discovered in Tulsa. Whites and Black landowners gained wealth in the area very quickly and people of all races came to get into the game. Tulsa was divided into two regions--northern, where the Blacks lived, and southern, where the whites lived. The railroad tracks divided the city. With the area thriving community was needed. In 1905, the first grocery store was opened on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Avenue. The survivors of the riot said Greenwood built up because when one Black business owner built his or her business they would lend a hand to another to keep building. Greenwood Avenue was lined with businesses including a hotel, restaurants, barber shops, furriers, and even an early taxi business. There were even buildings that houses the offices of lawyers, physicians and other businesses. There were fifteen well known physicians in Greenwood. Dr. A.C. Jackson was described by the Mayo brothers as the "most able Negro surgeon in America". There were two newspapers published in Greenwood as well, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. The Oklahoma Sun covered state and national news as well as local news. There were nearly 200 businesses in a 35-square-block district. Greenwood had a public library and a high school that taught Latin, chemistry and physics. There were beautiful expensive houses on Detroit Avenue along Standpipe Hill. They were owned by the physicians, lawyers and businessmen. Greenwood was a very religious district. It had almost 24 churches as well as youth group organizations and religious societies. Booker T. Washington coined the term "Negro Wall Street" for Greenwood. It is now more commonly called Black Wall Street. 

There were some issues in Greenwood. There was gambling, prostitution, and drugs there. On the side roads there were houses that were more like shanties with no running water. The white residents of Tulsa referred to Greenwood as "niggertown". Racial tension was growing in the country once again. As the Black soldiers returned from fighting in World War I they were less willing to accept the systematic oppression after fighting for the country. 

On May 30, 1921 there was a racial incident between two teenagers. A Black shoe shiner got on an elevator where a white teenager was the operator. By the time the elevator doors opened she was screaming. He was running for his life. There were rumors of rape. Some places I have read that no one really knows what happened but I also read that the boy touched the girl's arm. The local white paper made the rumors worse by reporting that the boy ripped her clothes. He was arrested and put into jail at the courthouse on May 31st. During this time Blacks in jail were being lynched by white mobs, so a group of Black men from Greenwood went to the courthouse to protect the boy. Some of them were armed. They were met there by a group of angry white men. Some of them were armed. Within minutes twenty people were wounded or killed (both Black and white). No one knows who shot first. Tulsa now had a race war. 

That night as many as 5,000 whites went into Greenwood with weapons. The homes and businesses were looted. If occupants were still in the buildings they would either take them to the center where people were being detained in an internment camp or shot them in the front yards. Dr. A.C. Jackson was killed on his front porch as he was surrendering. The buildings were set on fire. The rioters would gather flammable materials in the center of the building and douse them with kerosene. The fire department did not answer any of the calls that night. There was a truck driving around Greenwood with a machine gun mounted to it and firing at the churches and buildings.  Airplanes were circling the area. Police claimed they were for reconnaissance. Witnesses said they were dropping turpentine and coal oil bombs. More than 1,200 of Greenwood's buildings were destroyed. There is no count as to how many were killed or injured. The Black people in the internment camp were kept there until a white person (usually an employer) would vouch for them. Some were kept there for two weeks. Both of the newspaper buildings were destroyed. The attack left 9,000 Black people homeless. 

The residents and businesses put in insurance claims for $1.8 million (around $25 million now) but they were denied. The government said the riot was caused by the Black men who went to the courthouse to protect the teenager, who by the way had the charges dropped on him. Hours before the riot the girl recanted on her claims of assault. Others claimed it was because W.E.B. du Bois visited months prior. Either way the Tulsa Race Riot or Tulsa Race Massacre occurred.

Greenwood however was rebuilt. The survivors of the attack lived in tents for awhile, but they rebuilt their homes and businesses. By the end of 1921 they had rebuilt over 800 structures. By June 1922, virtually all of the area homes were rebuilt. Although the country was outraged by the violence it was quickly forgotten. The state and local governments also forgot it and even many of the survivors chose not to pass on the stories to their families. In fact I read one article where a Black woman who was born in Greenwood in the 1950s didn't know that the district she lived in had been destroyed and rebuilt until recently. Black Wall Street was successful and thriving until the end of segregation. At that time the Black people could begin to shop and do business where it was previously prevented. Until that time it was estimated that every dollar stayed in Greenwood for nineteen months before it would be spent somewhere else. Segregation had made it so the Black people of Greenwood were limited as to where they did business and where they shopped. It helped areas like Greenwood thrive in different ways from other areas. The intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Avenue was known as Deep Greenwood and it was a model Black community to towns worldwide.  


Now that we have looked at the history of the area let's get to today's book. The book is Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink. 

Where do I begin with this book? It was an amazing story. Simply put it is the story of a Black teenage boy, Isaiah, who hung with the class bully and a Black teenage girl, Angel, who tended to be a goody goody. However the layers of race issues as well as Greenwood events is amazing. The chapters are done in chronological order counting down until the riot. They go back and forth between Isaiah and Angel. Here is the publisher's summary.

From the Publisher:

Seventeen-year-old Isaiah Wilson is, on the surface, a town troublemaker, but is hiding that he is an avid reader and secret poet, never leaving home without his journal. A passionate follower of W.E.B. Du Bois, he believes that black people should rise up to claim their place as equals.

Sixteen-year-old Angel Hill is a loner, mostly disregarded by her peers as a goody-goody. Her father is dying, and her family’s financial situation is in turmoil. Also, as a loyal follower of Booker T. Washington, she believes, through education and tolerance, that black people should rise slowly and without forced conflict.

Though they’ve attended the same schools, Isaiah never noticed Angel as anything but a dorky, Bible toting church girl. Then their English teacher offers them a job on her mobile library, a three-wheel, two-seater bike. Angel can’t turn down the money and Isaiah is soon eager to be in such close quarters with Angel every afternoon.

But life changes on May 31, 1921 when a vicious white mob storms the community of Greenwood, leaving the town destroyed and thousands of residents displaced. Only then, Isaiah, Angel, and their peers realize who their real enemies are.

My Review

I loved reading this book. It was so interesting and pulled the reader in. Even knowing a bit about of the history of Greenwood the date countdown made it a bit of mystery and more enticing. The debates between Angel and Isaiah about racial issues were interesting. They compare Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. duBois and their views on how Blacks should fight racism. They discuss how lucky they are to be in Greenwood and life outside of Greenwood for Blacks. The book is deep in thought and racial issues. It is powerful and also is well written and a page turner. The kids are brave and their actions during the riot are amazing though not completely based on the reality of the attack. It is a great way to introduce Greenwood and the Tulsa Race Riot to young adults and open many discussions that are so important for us to be having. I honestly sent the link to this book to my Black teacher friends as a book for them to check out because it was that good and I knew they would be interested in it. I hope you will check it out.