Campaign to rebuild Black Wall Street could extend to Detroit

Jasmin Barmore
Special to The Detroit News

A $10 million fundraising campaign launched Thursday to rebuild Black Wall Street —Tulsa, Oklahoma’s black-owned business district destroyed in 1921 by white rioters — could soon spread to Detroit, organizers said. 

The effort was announced during a virtual press conference by Oklahoma’s Historic Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and is chaired by Detroit’s Rev. Horace Sheffield III. Sheffield said if successful, the committee will launch another campaign to rebuild Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, torn down in the 1950s in part to build Interstate 375. 

Detroit's Black Bottom, razed as part of urban "renewal," bore a strong resemblance to Corktown in building types.

“We are going all over the country too and getting people to be a part of this campaign” Sheffield says.

Supporters of the Tulsa effort include civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Princeton Professor Cornel West and actor Hill Harper, who owns Detroit’s Roasting Plant Coffee Shop. Harper said he and Sheffield want Detroit to be next. 

“Part of the idea here is that if we can create a successful model here, then we can bring that model to replicate in other communities” Harper said to The Detroit News. "I have deep ties to the Detroit community … We will continue to keep doing good work in Detroit.”

The Historic Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, which first announced plans in January to rebuild Black Wall Street, is soliciting donations in part through a GoFund Me account. Money raised will restore the remaining area of Greenwood, approximately ten buildings, including the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce building. It will also fix broken sidewalks and bring new businesses into the area.  

“We did get a National Park Service grant of $500,000 seed money” Sheffield says.  “We want to turn it into a National Park Site.”

Plans for restoring part of Black Wall Street are set to be complete by 2021, the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa riots. 

Black Wall Street and Black Bottom Detroit have many similarities: both were built by black residents to create a safe space to live and thrive economically. The two also housed some of the country’s first African American millionaires and were torn down by white people.  Black Wall Street was destroyed after Tulsa’s 1921 race riots, when as many as 300 people were killed. Urban renewal policies funded the leveling of Detroit’s Black Bottom. 

Before the destruction of Black Bottom, named for the area's rich soil, the community was full of homes, stores and businesses owned by black residents.  It stretched through Detroit’s East side, surrounded by Gratiot Ave, Brush St., Vernor Highway and the Grand-Trunk railroad tracks. Paradise Valley, a neighborhood inside of Black Bottom, housed the thriving businesses such as hotels and nightclubs, mainly sat on St. Antoine and Hastings St.

The Greenwood District, a neighborhood in Tulsa that housed Black Wall Street, was founded by O.W. Gurley, a black educator and entrepreneur. Gurley gained his wealth by owning land. He came to the Oklahoma town in 1906 — that was originally Native American territory — after quitting his job as an appointee to President Grover Cleveland.  Gurley purchased 40-acres to make a safe space for black people to come live and thrive economically. He named it Greenwood and sold the land to only black people. 

Before the destruction of the Greenwood district, the streets were filled with hundreds of businesses founded and owned by black residents; from churches to restaurants, movie theaters, a bank, hospital, school system and private planes.

“In this historic moment of reckoning, let us remember those monumental events of barbarity that shape who and what we are,” West said in a statement. "The Tulsa massacre of 1921 was an American crime against humanity. Let us come together as black and white human beings to rectify it!”

Many houses in Detroit's Black Bottom resembled those in Corktown.

West said he thinks it a wonderful idea to restore Black Bottom Detroit and that Sheffield has his support.

In Detroit, Sheffield says he plans to reach out to Detroit companies such as DTE Energy, the Big 3 auto companies and national unions such as United Auto Workers to contribute to the effort.  

A project to transform I-375 into a boulevard, which could free up land for new business development, is still in the planning stages. Construction isn’t expected until 2027, Michigan Department of Transportation officials said.