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Excerpted From: Karen Gantt, Black Wall Street: Wealth and Lessons for Today, 57 Tulsa Law Review 277 (Winter 2021) (159 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KarenGnattThe complaints filed in the legal proceedings that took place after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre provide insight into the devastation suffered by the Greenwood resident-plaintiffs as they sought restitution from various defendants. At least 193 lawsuits were filed against insurance companies and the City of Tulsa after the 1921 Massacre, and as will be discussed later, almost every claim was denied. One witness, who observed the fires from another part of town, testified that he saw about forty fires burning throughout the Greenwood section. The lawsuits discuss bombs being dropped on the Greenwood section of the City of Tulsa, a white mob--many of whom were wearing sheriff's badges and detaining residents, and the destruction of homes, businesses, and personal property. The property damage alone during the twenty-four hours of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was estimated at just under $2 million. In today's dollars the damage is estimated at $16,752,600.

Alexander v Oklahoma, provides a further glimpse into some of the physical and emotional damage suffered as a direct result of the 1921 Massacre where over two hundred African Americans were killed and an entire forty-two-block area of town, including “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground. Victims of the riot, who were children at the time of the incident, and descendants of victims sued the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma, but at the end of the day, the court determined that the statute of limitations had expired on their claims. Various bills were subsequently introduced in Congress, and a public nuisance theory lawsuit is pending, but to date, redress for the losses Greenwood and its residents suffered has not occurred.

In addition to the well-documented evidence of devastation, these same lawsuits also provide a glimpse at the wealth, fortitude, and resilience of the residents and business owners along Black Wall Street.

Mrs. Loula Williams is a prime example. She owned the Williams Dreamland Theatre, a popular 750-seat theater. As well, she owned a candy store in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was one of the most prominent businesswomen in the community. Williams Dreamland Theatre was one of the businesses destroyed by white mobs during the Tulsa Race Massacre. Mrs. Williams filed lawsuits and suffered an estimated $79,164 in losses, the equivalent to $1.2 million today. Her three insurance companies denied her claims.

Similarly, William Redfearn was a white businessman also located in Greenwood. He was the owner of both the Dixie Theater and the Red Wing Hotel. On June 1, 1921, both of his properties were destroyed by fire. Similar in value to Mrs. Williams' losses. Mr. Redfearn's theater was valued at $35,000, not including equipment and the hotel was valued at $40,000. When he tried to collect the insurance proceeds for the loss of his buildings, the insurance company denied coverage and refused to pay out the collective $19,000 worth of insurance coverage he carried on his properties. William Redfearn hoped that the state Supreme Court would rule differently and order the insurance company to pay for the losses his properties sustained. However, Central Insurance Company adamantly stood by its decision denying coverage because the insurance policy covering Mr. Redfearn's theater building, as well as the policy covering his hotel, contained explicit exclusions for loss or damage caused by riot. Unfortunately for Mr. Redfearn, the court agreed with the insurer.

[. . .]

One hundred years have passed since the 1921 Race Massacre. The strength of Black Wall Street and the people of Greenwood is evidenced by the rebuilding that took place after the Massacre despite lack of insurance company payments, lack of help from the city, state, or the nation. The urban renewal programs of the 1960s together with desegregation destroyed Greenwood and many other urban areas throughout the country. Nationwide, minority communities saw decline and complete recovery has still not occurred. Examples of communities flourishing due to strong businesses and support for those businesses by the community abound including Black Wall Street, Black-owned banks such as Freedom National Bank in the 1960s and Black-owned insurers such as North Carolina Mutual and Atlanta Life Insurance Company. The killing of George Floyd and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the African American community have galvanized a multiracial, multiethnic coalition of supporters who recognize the importance of eliminating the wealth gap between African American and white Americans, which has resulted from a history of discriminatory practices including housing policies. Recent efforts to support Black businesses and Black banking institutions show great promise as avenues to help bridge the Black-white wealth gap.

Associate Professor of Business Law, University of Hartford, Barney School of Business, West Hartford, CT.©

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