Hours after a 19-year-old Black man likely tripped and reached out in alarm for the hand of a nearby white woman in March 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s white-owned newspaper demanded his lynching with ruthless clarity: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”
Over the next 18 hours and across 35 city blocks, smoke and ash billowed above a nightmare-scape of thousands of incinerated homes and hundreds of butchered Black bodies—all for an offense that historians now agree was widely exaggeratedly and misunderstood. By the time sun rose the following morning over Greenwood, rioters had reduced the seat of Black prosperity in America to rubble. One hundred years later, we’ve still not recovered.
White mobs, many of them deputized and armed by local officials, managed to destroy what is estimated to be the equivalent today of more than $200 million in property value from local Black home and business owners. The liquid asset fallout from the attack was even worse because many Greenwood families stored their cash savings in their homes out of fear of commercial banks.
Then as now, Black skepticism of financial institutions is deeply rooted, elastic and intergenerational. That apprehension toward banks helps explains why one of us felt it necessary to stash mountains of cash under a mattress after being drafted out of high school into the NBA. It’s a sentiment learned from our grandmothers and from theirs. You can trace it to 1874, 50 years before the Greenwood riots, to the collapse of Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, whose federal mismanagement resulted in the catastrophic loss of deposits from freed slaves worth more than $22 million today.
The United States Congress authorized the 1865 chartering of Freedman’s to help newly freed slaves build wealth. Less than a decade later, scratch deposits from freedmen and freedwomen across the country had swelled to the current equivalent of $65,200,000, but corruption and malpractice by the bank’s all-white leadership—until the eleventh-hour installation of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass—resulted in the bank’s insolvency.
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SOURCE: TIME, Kevin Garnett and Ashley Bell