February 4, 2003

Johnson Speaks on 'Black Wall Street'

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Hannibal B. Johnson, a man not known for an insatiable appetite, but for his book, “Black Wall Street – from Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” gave a lecture last night describing the 1921 race riots outlined in his book to more than 50 Cornell community members.

The 50-minute lecture in Sage Hall was primarily sponsored by the Black Graduate Association.

Johnson explained the implications leading up to an event that is not well known in American history. Rather than focusing on specific dates in reviewing the riot, Johnson said that his main focus was first-hand accounts.

“The books that I write are about people, virtue and character rather than events,” Johnson said.


He stated that the ethnic conflict started in the 1800s with the Trail of Tears and the migration of American Indians. Later on, members of the black community who also migrated, served as boosters, who attempted to bring the black community to Oklahoma.

Johnson speculates that the government supported this migration because the “problems” that came with minorities would then “would go away.” He also said that there was a possibility that Oklahoma could have been made an exclusively African-American state.

In the 1910s, Greenwood, a primarily black community, started to grow. Johnson described the growing economy of Greenwood and compared it to a ‘black Wall Street.’

Riots were occurring in the midwest, and on May 21, 1921, a questionable altercation that occurred between a black man and a white woman in an elevator of a downtown Tulsa building caused tensions to rise. With the media serving as a catalyst in creating false rumors, a riot broke out.

Although official reports indicate that less than 50 people died, Johnson speculates that up to 300 people were killed in the ensuing chaos.

“Marshall law was put in place and black students were rounded up,” Johnson said.

Even in the midst of violence, Johnson said that the Greenwood community with stood resentment from the white community.

“The good news was that this community rebounded and regenerated,” he said. “The white community was not helpful and was in fact, an impediment to rebuilding.”

According to Johnson, local politicians are pushing legislation to try and force the city to give money to survivors. As for Greenwood, there has been gradual development, although the community is currently a shadow of what it once was.

“It’s not going to be ‘black Wall Street’ again, but there are still remnants of it,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s presenation included 60 minutes clip about the Tulsa riot and a 15 minute question and answer session.

After receiving a law degree from Harvard, Johnson has been active in many fields, serving as a author, lawyer, professor and consultant. Johnson has written a children’s book entitled, “Up From the Ashes – a Story About Community” and is currently writing another novel.

Many students did not previously know about the Tulsa riot and wondered why it is generally not incorporated in American history textbooks. Mondrell Moore grad said it “was not shocking” that the general public does not know about the riot.

“It’s really important we understand our full history. Having events like this means something for all of us,” said Kimberly Young grad, president of the Black Graduate Association.

Students were generally impressed by Johnson’s knowledge of the topic and said they gained from the lecture. Moore, who has read Johnson’s book, said it was a “very good read.”

“It was very informative and I’ve never heard of [the riot] before,” Mutunga David grad said. “It’s something that you need to hear.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao