Until recently, few Americans knew about the Tulsa race massacre 100 years ago, when a white mob burned down a prosperous 35-block Black neighborhood called Greenwood, using not only torches but firebombs dropped from airplanes. Three hundred people were killed, and 1,256 houses and 191 businesses destroyed. Thousands were left homeless among the smoldering ruins.
I first learned about this act of racist terrorism a number of years ago, when I was teaching a journalism course; a student from Tulsa wrote her final paper on the horrific events of the late spring, 1921, that leveled a successful community whose main thoroughfare was known as “Black Wall Street.” I was shocked—not only by the details of hatred, slaughter, and destruction but also about the silence that had kept one of the worst episodes of racial violence in the 20th century out of our history books. Now, with the centenary of the massacre, we are finally beginning to learn a truth that should never have been hidden.
Yet even less well-known is the denouement of Greenwood’s story. Despite rejected insurance claims and zoning changes thrown up as obstacles by the city of Tulsa, African American residents managed to rebuild their community, and, by the 1940s, there were more than 200 businesses and many hundreds of houses in Greenwood once more. But in the 1960s, a second wave of destruction arrived, this time with the legal cudgel of eminent domain, as a new highway cut the heart out of the neighborhood for good.
That was the fate, of course, of urban neighborhoods throughout America, as billions of federal dollars poured into an enormous highway-construction program, propelling the car culture and the race to the suburbs. Along with urban renewal—planned and carried out almost entirely by white officials—these vast schemes disproportionately targeted Black areas. While redlining and general disinvestment had led many such neighborhoods to be categorized as “blight,” they were real communities whose social networks, as well as their homes and livelihoods, were destroyed.
That destruction became the canvas for the modern project: not only the high-speed arteries for automobiles but high-rise housing and the construction of some of America’s most celebrated architecture. In Detroit, for example, historic African American neighborhoods were demolished in the name of urban renewal and to build freeways, beginning in the 1950s. Black Bottom (so named by early French settlers for its rich soil) and Paradise Valley, in particular, had been thriving communities, with Black professionals, businesses, and entertainment. With the Chrysler Freeway soon to rip through it, Black Bottom was razed, leaving a tabula rasa for modernist planning. And so one 46-acre parcel was transformed into Lafayette Park (1956–65), a beautiful complex designed by Mies van der Rohe of glass apartment towers, town houses, and a school, set in a verdant landscape.
Another Mies masterpiece—Crown Hall at I.I.T. in Chicago (1956)—is similarly situated, where a legendary apartment building called the Mecca once stood, in the Black neighborhood of Bronzeville. As Thomas Dyja wrote in his award-winning book The Third Coast, and in an essay for RECORD, the ghost of the Mecca inspired a former denizen, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. “To touch every note in the life of this block-long, block-wide building would be to capsulize the gist of Black humanity in general,” she wrote. She called Crown Hall “an erasure.”
Today, a number of cities are trying to heal the wounds made by highways, with plans to tear them down and replace them with boulevards, parks, and, of course, the potential for new real-estate development. In Oakland, California, where the destruction of a Black community by a highway prompted, in part, Walter Hood’s installation in the Reconstructions exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this past spring, officials have studied the positive impact of the highway’s removal (the negative impact could be gentrification). And in Detroit, there is an official commitment to take down the Chrysler Freeway.
While such plans can help repair neighborhoods, there is no reclaiming communities that have been erased, or eliminating the scar tissue. But we must, at least, acknowledge and understand history if we are to design and construct a better future.