Shopify traveled to Tulsa to tell the stories of merchants who are reinventing Black Wall Street for the ecommerce age. Read the rest of the series here.
All original photography by Alexxus Browning. Creative direction by Sage Youngblood.
Spend time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, especially around the Greenwood neighborhood, and you’ll inevitably spot someone sporting it: a black oversized bomber jacket with the words “Black Wall Street” emblazoned on the back in impossible-to-miss block letters.
It’s a distinctive style statement, but it’s also a promise. The second coming of Black Wall Street is happening in Tulsa, and young Black entrepreneurs are fueling it.
While growing up in Tulsa, creative director and clothing designer Trey Thaxton was not taught about the history of Greenwood, the neighborhood known as Black Wall Street in the early 20th century. The neighborhood featured over a thousand Black-owned homes and businesses and had a financial circulation so robust that it’s estimated the average dollar changed hands 19 times within the community before it was spent elsewhere. On May 31, 1921, a white mob perpetrated what the Oklahoma Historical Society believes to be “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” razing 36 square blocks, killing up to 300 Black Tulsans, and erasing a generation of Black wealth overnight.
The story of Black Wall Street is frequently omitted from history books, so when Trey finally learned of the Tulsa massacre as an adult, he made it his purpose to tell the story of Black Wall Street far and wide. “My whole career is storytelling. And one way to do that was through clothes,” Trey says. “It gives people a banner to hang under, a way to say, ‘We’re the next iteration of Black Wall Street.’” In 2019, Trey launched the online clothing brand 19&21 to help fund his concurrent project Greenwood Ave., a web series that aims to shed a historical light on the businesses that were destroyed in 1921 and the new ones thriving now.
“Black Wall Street represented our people’s ability to overcome significant challenges and create this self-sufficient community where men and women owned their own businesses,” says Michelle Brown-Burdex, who directs programming for the Greenwood Cultural Center, a community pillar and keeper of the flame for Black Wall Street’s history. “Everyone had their own business. Everyone was making money. They supported one another. They shared ideas. They shared resources.”
Trey and Michelle are just two of many entrepreneurs, historians, and activists striving to unearth and reimagine the miracle of Black Wall Street for the 21st century. By bringing the resilience and persistence of the Black entrepreneurial spirit into a digital age, ecommerce can function as a bridge between the physical roots of Greenwood and the global marketplace.
“Greenwood Avenue is synonymous with Black entrepreneurship around the world,” Trey says. “The spirit of it is so tangible.” In other words, to focus on the tragedy only tells half the story. The other half is a story filled with hope and ingenuity that’s taking place in Black Tulsa to this day.
Black Wall Street and the opportunities of a new digital age
A walk down the Greenwood Avenue of today reveals the promise of the Black-fueled revival Trey speaks of but also the echoes of generational trauma. Locals congregate at places like the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge, where they can sip on matcha-mint Greenwood lattes, just steps away from The Greenwood Gallery, where they can view work from local Black artists. “Get Down on It” by Kool & the Gang blares out of a storefront as kids race scooters down the block. On the sidewalk, every 10 feet or so lies a plaque commerating a Black business that was destroyed in 1921. And at the corner of Greenwood and Archer, there’s a new imposing edifice, erected less than a year ago—the Greenwood Rising museum, which has attracted more than 41,000 visitors since its opening.
While there’s a strong sense of community, physical limitations have prevented Greenwood from fully reclaiming what it once was. Boxed in by railroad tracks and bisected by a freeway—the consequences of a decades-long “urban renewal” push from city planners that withered the district—Greenwood was strategically isolated from the rest of Tulsa. It makes physical expansion difficult. However, Greenwood is but one outpost of the new Black Wall Street. What was once physical and local is now digital and global. Online entrepreneurs in Tulsa and beyond are rebuilding Black Wall Street using the internet.
“All sectors of the modern Greenwood District understand the foundation upon which they are built and want to honor that,” says Hannibal Johnson, one of the foremost scholars on Black Wall Street and the curator of the new Greenwood Rising museum. He speaks of how young Black entrepreneurs today are “no longer limited by geography. … Indeed, with technology and global markets, they are scarcely limited at all.”
Tulsa is experiencing a growing wave of dreamers and doers who are drawn to the promises the city offers. For many, Black Wall Street has become a representative heart of Black entrepreneurship, a site of endless possibility.
I feel connected to the legacy of Black Wall Street. As an African American entrepreneur, there’s no better place to build.
And a plethora of new resources have taken shape to support them. Online resources like the Official Black Wall Street app and Empowered by Shopify connect consumers with Black businesses. Organizations like Black Tech Street, founded in 2021, are working to shape Black Wall Street into a global innovation hub for Black tech. New digital outlets like the Tulsa-based Black Wall Street Times tell the stories of Greenwood and Black Tulsa. And recent initiatives like Tulsa Remote attract young talent from across the country by providing $10,000 grants to remote workers who move to Tulsa.
Even though Black Wall Street is no longer constrained by geography, operating in Tulsa can be a grounding, invigorating experience for Black entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is sometimes isolating and difficult, but being surrounded by the ancestors of the Black founders who came before you can provide a feeling of destiny and meaning.
DaKira Taylor, who also goes by Redd, could run her online skin care empire from anywhere. She doesn’t require a brick-and-mortar storefront. But she chooses to live in Tulsa, a place she felt spiritually called to move from Texas three years ago.
“Since all my businesses are online, it’s not like I need to be here physically. But I would limit myself if I did not try to create a local network,” she says.
Redd runs several profitable Shopify stores, with two of her businesses, byREDD Beauty and byREDD Wholesale, providing both direct-to-consumer and private label products through popular offerings like turmeric rose body bars and lavender coconut facial toners.
What started in her Tulsa apartment eventually expanded into a nearby warehouse, where she ships to customers around the world, many of whom follow her on social media. She hadn’t heard of Black Wall Street prior to her move, but she feels grateful that her journey brought her to the cradle of Black Wall Street.
“I see people trying to keep that vision alive, and I’m just glad that I’m here to witness it. And hopefully be a part of it as well,” she says.
The role Black businesses play in closing the racial wealth gap
According to a 2019 Federal Reserve survey, the average white family in the United States holds eight times the wealth of the average Black family. The wealth gap doesn’t just hurt Black people, it shortchanges the entire US economy. If this gap had magically closed in 2000, for example, the United States could have generated an additional $16 trillion in economic activity over the past two decades, as well as six million more jobs a year. Black wealth creation has the potential to be a boon for everyone.
In Tulsa, the economic fallout of the 1921 race massacre has persisted until this day. Black Tulsans saw a dramatic “decline in homeownership, occupational status and education attainment.” Single family homes in the Black-majority areas of Tulsa, meanwhile, are worth 40% less than similar homes in non-Black areas.
While Black people make up 15% of Tulsa’s population, Black-owned businesses are barely 1% of the metro area’s nearly 20,000 businesses, according to a Brookings study that looked at the barriers to wealth creation for Black Tulsans.
Nest Collective, a newly launched initiative from the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, aims to close this gap in Tulsa by nurturing Black and Indigenous business owners with coaching and mentorship.
“The recent growth in Tulsa is just the start of what it will become. We are the descendants of Black Wall Street and Black Wall Street lives in Tulsa,” says Tulsa-born Lindsey Corbitt, program manager at the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce.“With the proper materials and resources, these businesses can have an amazing economic impact within these individual communities and at a national level as well.”
The COVID-19 pandemic witnessed a significant surge in the creation of Black businesses, the biggest increase in the past 25 years: Black entrepreneurism outpaced both white-owned and Asian-owned businesses, according to a study by the Kauffman Foundation. The proliferation of Black businesses is a leap toward building intergenerational wealth in the Black community, a process that has historically been disrupted by acts of mass violence, like what happened to Black Wall Street.
In Tulsa, entrepreneurs are determined to extend their skills and knowledge toward helping others launch businesses of their own.
“I truly believe in building legacy, and you can only do that when you empower your people,” says Sultana Nailor, who relocated to Tulsa during the pandemic to be closer to her grandson, and who owns two Tulsa-based Shopify ecommerce businesses focusing on holistic wellness, Vital Melamins and Apothatote. She has spent much of her career as a consultant helping small business owners learn how to manage and scale their own ventures.
“When I train entrepreneurs, that’s building legacy, not only in my family, but in my community,” she says.
Tulsa resident Felisha Renee, who moved to the city as part of the Tulsa Remote program, received powerful guidance from a longtime mentor when launching her wine accessories shop, Tipsy Valley. To pay it forward, she takes time away from her business to consult other entrepreneurs on launching Shopify stores.
“There’s so much information out there, and entrepreneurs may not know where to start,” she says. “You experience this paralysis because you have too much information. So mentorship is really important to me. I am very intentional about finding other women that look like me.”
“It’s great to be in a place where you have a group of people that are all working toward the same goal to rebuild something—and not just to make it the same as it was, but to make it even greater,” she says. “It’s a community where you have all these people who are there to support you, and you can’t beat that. As an African American entrepreneur, there’s no better place to build,” she says.
The ethos of empowerment is embodied by DaKira Taylor as well. In addition to her skin care stores, she also offers Redd’s University, where she provides courses and ebooks on how to build a business using social media.
As the spirit of Greenwood Avenue spreads inside and outside of Tulsa, in both physical and virtual storefronts, it takes on a certain invincibility, a transcendence.
“Black Wall Street is not a place, it’s not dirt, it’s not buildings,” says Trey Thaxton. “It’s digital and worldwide, which means it can never be destroyed again. You can’t stop it, because it lives inside of all of us.”
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