Black Wall Street Reno, a grassroots group that Donald Griffin and RoMar Tolliver started in 2020, has a small exhibition in the theater lobby at the Nevada Museum of Art. The display consists of historical photographs of a violent attack on a successful Black neighborhood that took place 100 years ago.
As of May 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to a community of 10,000 Black residents. According to a video talk by Carol Anderson, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Greenwood had two newspapers, two movie theaters, 30+ restaurants, 30+ grocery stores, and at least a dozen churches. The community had a post office, a hospital, and around a dozen black physicians. The neighborhood’s success earned it the nickname “Black Wall Street.”
In the video, Prof. Anderson describes white Tulsa’s attitude toward Greenwood as “an air of seething resentment … so intense that it was waiting for a spark to just ignite it.”
The spark came in the form of a chance encounter between two teenagers. Dick Rowland, a Black, 19-year-old shoe shiner, walked into an elevator being operated by Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old. There are different versions of what happened on the way from the first floor to the third floor. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “The most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream. The next day, however, the Tulsa Tribune … reported that Rowland, who had been picked up by police, had attempted to rape Page.”
For two days, on May 31 and June 1, 1921, Tulsa’s city officials and residents unleashed a torrent of rage on Greenwood, burning and razing 35 city blocks. At the time, 36 people were reported killed, but contemporary estimates are in the 300-600 range. The entire community of 10,000 was displaced. Many people dispersed across the U.S. and Canada.
If this is the first you’ve heard of this massacre, you’re not the only one who didn’t learn about it in high school history. Officials swept it under the rug for decades. Historians and archaeologists are still excavating the site to fully piece together what happened.
Donald Griffin and RoMar Tolliver, Zoomed in from their office this week for an interview to talk about the photos and what Black Wall Street Reno is doing to reverse the impacts of violent legacies like this one, one Renoite at a time.
For people who aren’t yet familiar with Black Wall Street Reno, what it is, and what you do?
RoMar: Well, we’re a community-based resource center. Half of our platform is outreach. The other part of our platform is literacy. And we’re here to provide services for the Black and underserved in the community of Reno and Sparks.
Tell me more about the literacy outreach. What does that look like?
RoMar: Due to the fact Nevada has ranked so low in national education, … the literacy program is just to inspire and encourage the next generation and the youth to read. The mind is a muscle. The stronger your thoughts are, the longer we can sustain in society…. We’ve joined forces with Grassroots Books and are trying to establish the in-home library project. Kids can go to Grassroot Books and sign up to receive 50 free books and a choice for their household library. … The more kids we can get with an in-home library and get them away from their phones, the more productive we can be in society in the future to come.
Your display at the Nevada Museum of Art—How did that come about?
RoMar: It came about with some divine timing. This marks the hundred-year benchmark of the Oklahoma/Tulsa massacre. And we established Black Wall Street to pay homage in honor of what they had achieved back then. With the Nevada art museum supporting us in our efforts, for them to host the Black Wall Street exhibit is just awesome for the community support.
In the photos, the Greenwood neighborhood looks like it was bombed. Everything was just leveled to the ground. It’s harrowing.
RoMar: It was! It wasn’t just fire. It was bombed from airplanes.
Around 10,000 people were left homeless. That must have had such an long lasting effect on the people who were displaced, and on their descendants too.
Donald: It had a hundred-year effect. It seems like we have no clue of how to rebuild from those ashes. You know, it’s like we’re still breathing in those ashes. …
The Tulsa massacre is often called a low point of race relations. What point do you think we’re at now?
Donald: Still wiping the sleep out of people’s eyes. I don’t want to say they’re woke, but they’re moving around. We know they’re breathing. But it has to start coming from the churches, to really start waking people up. That’s where the majority of our people gather on Sundays, at least once a week. … But we need to start rebuilding, and we need to start with the generational wealth.
RoMar: [Black Wall Street Reno] is in the spirit of just being able to say that we can accomplish things, and we’re not just down in the position that we see ourselves in today. Hopefully it inspires the spirit of perseverance, the spirit of triumph.
Donald: For that, you need—the ones that are still asleep—let them know that it’s not a white man’s game. It’s just a game. And everybody’s playing it except for us.
What does Black Wall Street Reno need from the community right now?
Donald: It’s just RoMar and myself, and we’re operating on personal funds. So, donations would be a big plus, not just to keep the lights on but just to let the kids know there’s something bigger than Fourth Street and the casinos.
Black Wall Street Reno welcomes donations on its website, or you can bring a check to the groups office at 351 Wells Ave., Suite 100 (upstairs).
The exhibition Black Wall Street is on view in the theater lobby at the Nevada Museum of Art through June 27.
Thank you to Luke Williams, Archivist & Curator of Collections at the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, for lending us the photos.