How Greenwood Grew a Thriving Black Economy
When W.E.B. Du Bois visited the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla., in early 1921, he, like so many others, was impressed by what he found. The famed intellectual had been on the road for weeks on a Southern lecture tour. In his travel diary, he wrote of brutal lynchings and brutalization that were as old as the nation itself — older, in fact. What grabbed Du Bois’s attention was what his people were accomplishing despite it. “One notes all through the south, with some exception, the new hope and power of the colored folk,” he wrote in his diary. “It is not any increased faith in the white people — quite the contrary — it is a distinct sense of their own ability.”
Greenwood represented this “new hope and power” better than almost any other place in the country. At the start of 1921, the 11,000-person enclave was ascendant. The district counted at least 15 doctors, a dozen tailors, seven attorneys, a jeweler, a garment factory and a skating rink among its more than 150 businesses. Several entrepreneurs were worth at least $500,000 in today’s dollars; a few were modern millionaires. In less than two decades, Greenwood had transformed from a barren patch of low-lying land north of downtown Tulsa into the nexus of Black economic activity in the Southwest.
Du Bois was especially intrigued by how the community as a whole was using group economics to achieve collective success. As Jim Crow laws grew more rigid in Tulsa and elsewhere during the early 20th century, many local Black economies that operated in parallel to white ones were growing and thriving. Between 1870 and 1920, Black people’s financial prospects rose rapidly, reaching one dollar of Black wealth for every $10 of white wealth, according to a recent study by economists at Princeton University and the University of Bonn in Germany. It was nowhere close to parity, but for people not long removed from enslavement, there was striking progress.
Black people carved out a path to success by relying on what Du Bois called “a closed economic circle.” As he sought out examples of group economics during his tour, he became most fascinated by a Greenwood theater called the Dreamland and its savvy proprietor, Loula Williams.
Williams’s rise mirrored the growth of Greenwood itself. Like most of her neighbors, the Tennessee native was a migrant to Oklahoma. She arrived in Tulsa in the early 1900s, along with her husband, John Wesley Williams, and their son, W.D. Though she found a job as a teacher in the nearby town of Fisher, Loula Williams was determined to set out in the world of business.
In 1912, after patiently saving a portion of her earnings as an educator, she purchased a lot at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, a hub of social and economic activity that later generations would warmly refer to as “Deep Greenwood.” There she erected a three-story brick building, which housed her family’s apartment, professional offices and her Williams Confectionery. With its 12-foot soda fountain and generous servings of ice cream, the confectionery soon became Greenwood’s prime family-friendly gathering spot. W.D. would later say it was the only place on the block where people could get a drink that wasn’t bootleg whiskey.
Property ownership distinguished Williams and many of her Greenwood peers from other migrants who fled the South in the early years of the Great Migration. In 1910, not long before Williams purchased her lot, 35 percent of Black Oklahomans owned their own homes, compared with 23 percent in Illinois and just 8 percent in New York. By 1914, estimates for homeownership were as high as 50 percent in Greenwood.
Oklahoma’s Black population was well positioned to thrive. Some were members of Indigenous tribes who also had African ancestry and were granted individual land allotments out of the tribes’ collective landholdings. Others were middle-class migrants from the Deep South, who ventured west on the promise of a racial climate that would nurture their success rather than smother it — providing “equal chances with the white man,” as one promotional booklet put it. National Black leaders of the era often had starkly different views on the best path to Black progress, but all agreed that the independent spirit gestating in Oklahoma provided a model to follow. Du Bois praised the state’s “thrifty and intelligent colored populace,” while Booker T. Washington, his philosophical rival, admired the “unusually large number of these black immigrants [who] had become owners of land.”
In 1914, Williams and her husband, John, bought a second property, a 7,000-square-foot lot across from the confectionery. They soon transformed the space into the Dreamland Theatre. It was the first Black-owned theater in Tulsa and one of the few owned by a Black woman. (John transferred his stake to Loula in 1915.) The opening of the Dreamland was headline news in the Black-owned newspaper, the Tulsa Star, which encouraged residents to support the business “because it was constructed by Negroes for Negroes.”
Williams advertised the Dreamland as the “only Colored theater in the city,” and she was called both a “race woman” and “amusement queen” in glowing profiles. When the Dreamland was renovated in 1918, ahead of a screening of the Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra, she hired a team of Black contractors to do the work. “We ask your patronage of a Race enterprise not because of its identity but because of its service,” she later wrote in a letter to her customers.
Du Bois believed that enterprises like the Dreamland held the key to Black prosperity in a segregated world. Though primarily heralded as a sociologist and activist, Du Bois studied economics in graduate school in Berlin. He spent much of his life arguing that Black people needed to be more deliberate in how they spent their dollars and organized their businesses in order to benefit the race as a whole. In a 1907 essay, he estimated that 300,000 Black people in cities across the South were participating in a “group economy” to achieve “economic safety.”
In Greenwood, residents protected Black businesses in part by eschewing those owned by whites. A few years after the Dreamland opened, a white businessman named William Redfearn opened a competing theater called the Dixie directly across the street. When Du Bois strolled the streets of Greenwood in the spring of 1921, there was hardly any competition. “The colored theatre is always full. The white theatre is very poorly patronized,” Du Bois observed in his travel diary. “The colored people are using the boycott and race economic solidarity in Tulsa to an extent which I had never before witnessed.”
Financial cooperation was key to community success. Greenwood business leaders funded the neighborhood’s first library and hospital after the city failed to provide sufficient funds. Church renovations were paid with a mix of favorable loans from some of the neighborhood’s wealthiest landowners and Sunday dinner fund-raisers by its restaurateurs. “Blacks then were of an independent spirit and had a special kind of pride in the black community,” W.D. Williams said in a 1971 interview with a local Tulsa publication. “They would not buy from white merchants that which they could get from the black merchant and by that same token the black merchant didn’t take them for granted.”
This promising model, Du Bois’s long-sought closed economic circle, would be wrenched apart just months after his visit.
On the night of May 31, 1921, Loula Williams was at the Dreamland during a film screening when a man clambered onto the theater stage. “We’re not gonna let ’em lynch him,” the man announced. “Close this place down. We’re going to go to town and stop ’em.”
Outside the Dreamland’s doors, Black men were arming themselves and preparing to head to the Tulsa County Courthouse, where Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was being held after a false accusation of attempted rape. Later that night, armed Blacks and whites shot at each other through the downtown streets. On June 1, after the initial violence settled, a well-organized white mob of thousands invaded Greenwood, setting fire to the Dreamland, the Williams confectionery and more than 1,200 other homes and businesses.
While the immediate spark for the massacre stemmed from the accusation against Rowland, Greenwood’s economic success also fueled white resentments. Tulsa, an oil boomtown, was in the midst of an economic slump in the spring of 1921. One white Tulsan recalled that “white men were losing their jobs, but the Negroes, working for less wages, were kept on.” Greenwood’s Black landowners were sitting on an acreage that Tulsa’s white elite desperately wanted; the day after the massacre, Tulsa’s leading real estate men announced a plan to buy up all the burned-out property. The plan was thwarted, thanks to Black lawyers and landowners like Loula Williams who refused to sell.
The Williams family escaped with their lives but almost nothing else. With Greenwood’s communal self-sufficiency in tatters, the family tried to turn to outside institutions for help. They received little support. Insurance companies refused to compensate Williams for her losses, citing riot exclusion clauses in their contracts. The state government declined a plea for financial aid. Some white businessmen did offer loans for rebuilding but only at exorbitantly high interest rates. The Williams struggled for years to keep the Dreamland afloat. Loula Williams suffered a steep mental decline alongside her financial troubles.
In the mid-1920s, Du Bois would again visit the neighborhood and praise its resilience — “scars are there, but Greenwood is impudent and noisy,” he wrote. But Williams’s health was already failing by then. She died in 1927. Greenwood was rebuilt and achieved a second heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, but issues, like dilapidated housing built hastily in the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, lingered for decades. A community that had learned how to fend for itself would never again come so close to attaining Du Bois’s ideal form of communal Black progress.
Du Bois was an early champion of racial integration, but over time he became skeptical that white society would ever fully accept Black people. The eventual fate of Greenwood may have swayed his thinking. He began emphasizing group economics more and more, which put him out of step with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization he co-founded, and its ardent pursuit of desegregation. By the 1940s, Du Bois was advocating that Black communities create their own socialized health care system, communally owned banks and a consumer-focused economy in which goods created by Black manufacturers could be sold by Black merchants at or near the cost of production. “Today we work for others at wages pressed down to the limit of subsistence,” he argued. “Tomorrow we may work for ourselves, exchanging services, producing an increasing proportion of the goods which we consume and being rewarded by a living wage and by work under civilized conditions.”
Greenwood, in many ways, was the model. The community created an indelible legacy of self-determination, which Black people sought to emulate for generations. “A lot of cities had their version of Greenwood, because Black communities knew that they could create an ecosystem that benefited them,” said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Black entrepreneurship and land ownership.
In the Jim Crow era, places like Durham, N.C., and Richmond, Va., echoed Greenwood’s melding of Black enterprise with community-building. In the 1970s, as racial integration began in fits and starts, Floyd McKisick, a civil rights activist, attempted to build a planned community in North Carolina called Soul City, which he had hoped would become a shining symbol of Black economic power. The community never gathered the funding necessary to be fully developed. “When people talk about maximizing Black economics, so to speak, it gets to ownership,” Perry said. “How can we own property, businesses and culture in ways that advance a community, not just individuals?”
Today, with “buy back the block” movements in places like Los Angeles; Portland, Ore., and Birmingham, Ala., Black residents are striving to purchase commercial real estate in their own communities. They see the value of owning the economic engines of their neighborhoods the way Loula Williams once did. Greenwood’s “amusement queen” wasn’t just selling entertainment; she was building a blueprint that Black businesses still aim to follow.
This article was published in association with ‘Uncovering Inequality,’ an examination of more than a century of scholarship developed by the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University.
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