Rediscovering Black Wall Street: New Film Reaches Back Into Tulsa’s Once Thriving Business District

Documentary filmmaker Nailah Jefferson created "Descended from the Promised Land: The Legacy of Black Wall Street" to explore life before the race massacre of 1921.

As the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre arrives on Monday (May 31), the nation is being forced to look at a past filled with racial violence. But while many will look at the racial terrorism wrought for two days on Black residents of the city, it becomes easy to overlook the center point of Tulsa’s Greenwood District: a vibrant area of Black-owned businesses run by residents who were in the process of building wealth and a community for their families to inherit.
But after the attacks, despite the community being rebuilt by hand, redlining, systemic racism and neglect dismantled it to a point where little if anything is left of what it had been. Filmmaker Nailah Jefferson took a look at what happened through the eyes of two families of the massacre’s survivors. She spoke to about her upcoming documentary, Descended from the Promised Land: The Legacy of Black Wall Street.

RELATED: Not Just Tulsa: Race Massacres That Devastated Black Communities In Rosewood, Atlanta, and Other American Cities What motivated you to make this film?
Nailah Jefferson:
Transform Films approached me about making this film because there’s stories that I like to tell as a documentary filmmaker, stories about Black history, particularly stories within Black history that have not been amplified and uplifted. I feel like that has been the case with the story of Black Wall Street. There's been a long tradition of what I call disappearing Black contributions, Black stories, Black values, Black joy and American history. And so whenever I'm given an opportunity to uplift and amplify those stories, and give them their justice, I find great pride in it and, and I'm really inspired to tell them. 

Then I feel like there were a lot of Black Wall Streets throughout the country and so we hear so many stories of desperation about the Black community and people say we can't do and this and that, but I think Black Wall Street is a perfect example of what we can do when left alone, when allowed to fully thrive and meet our potential.

RELATED: Survivors of 1921 Tulsa Massacre Testify in Congress, Reliving Their Horrific Ordeal This film in some ways seems like a multi-dimensional time machine. I can look a century into the past but at the same time look squarely at the present. Was that what you were trying to convey?
Nailah Jefferson: Absolutely, we definitely wanted to draw a line from 1921 to 2021. Because the Tulsa race massacre happened,  and then what? What happened to these families? What happened to these businesses? I don't think that question has been answered, as people tell the story of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa race massacre. So the people who have those answers are the descendants.

So, it is like a time machine where they're able to go back to 1921, and then bring us through those 100 years. We realized that it was the Tulsa race massacre, then after that, certain policies and practices were put into place that suppressed the black community and didn't make it available for them to build another Black Wall Street. Through those years, families, lost businesses, they lost land, they lost their legacy. So absolutely, the power of film can transport you through space and time. So why not use it as a time machine right to tell the story and tell the full story? You looked at two families in this film and it seems as though over time there has been an erasure of their legacies as wealth building people. How were you able to find this out?
Nailah Jefferson: I think this was that question: What happened? Obviously, Black people can do this but why hasn't it been reclaimed? Why haven't they been able to rebuild? Between 1921 and 2021, there's 100 years that it seems like we would have been able to rebuild Black Wall Street. I think those families can answer the question, so we had to go back to them. And they were able to, They told us what was put in place, the practices and policies that stopped them from continuing with their family businesses. 

But not only that, if you look at the Williams family, Byron [Williams, a descendant] talks about the trauma that his great-great grandmother endured as a result of the Tulsa race massacre and having her dream, Williams Dreamland Theatre, destroyed and unable to build it back. He also talks about how that kind of steered everyone from being entrepreneurs in his family. It broke not only businesses but, I think a certain spirit within them too. In your research, which did you find damaged the Black community more, the actual violence or the redistricting and rezoning of the Greenwood district in the years after?

Nailah Jefferson: What was interesting is that within a year Black Wall Street was rebuilt. Of course, you know, we lost lives, there still isn't an official count of how many lives we lost.  But within that year, without insurance, people rebuilt — and I don't want to lessen the impact of the Tulsa race massacre, but they were able to overcome that, at least through the rebuilding of property.

But then after that...their property was taken illegally, and then it was taken legally. Then after that, I think white people just said if we pass certain laws, if we target this community over and over again, and make it illegal for them to rebuild, and thrive, then they won't. And that's what happened. It's just been continually stifling, and targeting this community, and not allowing them to reach their full potential. It's really sad and sobering to think about. The oldest living survivors recently testified to Congress that reparations are due to the families of survivors of the massacre. How would that help people in Tulsa today?
Nailah Jefferson: How would it not? I think no matter if the trouble occurred 100 years ago, whether it happened 10 or 20 years ago, you have to try and reconcile what was done in the past. When you look at these families, a lot of them for years wouldn't talk about what happened during the Tulsa race massacre.  Byron talks about a bit of shame that he even feels today when learning about what happened to his family. 

You have to start somewhere and I think trying to make people whole, because...they were never given anything from the city and all of them, their insurance claims were denied. If you can start reconciliation there, and actually acknowledge the wrong that was done and say that it was a massacre, it wasn't on both sides. It wasn't Black and white. This was an egregious act that happened against the Black community. If you can start there, then I think we can begin the process of healing, but reparations for me are a part of acknowledging and getting to reconciliation, which Tulsa needs so badly.

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