Blood on Black Wall Street: What Was Stolen
Trymaine Lee: I wonder when you were comin' up, when did you first hear about the massacre?
Bobby Eaton Jr.: I didn't hear about the massacre till I got grown.
B. Eaton Jr.: They didn't talk about it. It was not discussed in the school systems, in the community, in the neighborhoods.
B. Eaton Jr.: Lotta people left Tulsa to find out about what happened in Tulsa because people in other cities had heard about it. And they learned for the first time, "Wait a minute, man. That didn't happen in my town." "Well, yes, it did."
Archival Recording: May 31st, June 1st, when those hot days of summer brought on hate, destruction, murder in my city.
Lee: 100 years ago this week, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma experienced one of the worst incidents of racial violence in this country's history when a white mob, some of whom had been deputized by the police, laid siege to parts of North Tulsa, the Black part of town.
Archival Recording: All started because of a young man in a elevator who tripped onto Sarah Page, the elevator operator. A cry of, "Rape," went in the air, and Greenwood was destroyed.
Lee: Sarah Page and Dick Rowland, those were the two teenagers at the center of this tragedy. Dick Rowland was 19, Black, and a shoe shiner. Sarah Page was white, 17 years old, and an elevator operator. On May 30th, 1921, a rumor began that Dick attacked Sarah in the elevator of a downtown building, and long-simmering tensions began to boil. The police picked up Rowland, but white Tulsans wanted to take justice into their own hands. A local newspaper published an article calling on white residents to, quote, "Nab Negro for attacking girl in an elevator."
Archival Recording: 10,000 white folks gathered and demanded the release of Dick Rowland so they can lynch him, all because it was a false report. A false report led to destruction of my community.
Lee: What the white mob burned down was the Greenwood district, the prosperous Black neighborhood in north Tulsa. It was known then as Black Wall Street, a nickname given by Booker T. Washington. There were theaters, hotels, grocery stores, barber shops and beauty salons, all of them Black owned.
B. Eaton Jr.: They destroyed it because out of envy really. I think it's outta envy and jealousy because of all that economic development.
Lee: The destruction was swift and bloody.
Archival Recording: White people came into a thriving Black community, Greenwood, and slaughtered people, burned down their homes, destroyed their property, looted their property, took furniture, clothes, and silverware, and jewelry, and automobiles, and other things out of the community.
Lee: Some Black folks fought back. World War I veterans came downtown, armed with guns, to protect the teenage Dick Rowland at the courthouse.
Trey Eaton: A man named Horace "Peg Leg" Taylor, he took a machine gun up on Standpipe Hill. He was protectin' the property.
Lee: But they were outnumbered and outgunned.
Archival Recording: This is one of the first times that airplanes were used to drop bombs on domestic soil.
Amos Bagby: She said all them bullets was hittin' at (UNINTEL) and everything like that. They was runin'. My mother-in-law said they was running.
Archival Recording: Grandfather saw bodies bein' thrown into the Arkansas River, which is just south of here.
B. Eaton Jr.: Could you imagine a mother and a child, couple of kids runnin' down the street, runnin' from an angry mob and actually just getting shot down in the middle of the street?
Archival Recording: She saw this truck full of dead bodies. And there was a little boy about her age on the top of this truck.
A. Bagby: You couldn't see nothin'. Everything but the church down there. Them white folks burned it completely down.
Lee: When the bloodshed ended two days later, hundreds were injured and thousands more had been rounded up and jailed. Many didn't survive. The official death toll is disputed, but an estimated 300 Black Tulsans are believed to have been murdered over the course of those two days in 1921. Even that number might be an undercount, but up until recently the massacre was minimized as a riot. What is confirmed is that no one was ever held accountable.
B. Eaton Jr.: People weren't even charged, you know, for murders because it was outright murder.
Lee: Alongside the human toll was the violent dispossession of wealth for one of the richest Black communities in America. Thirty-five blocks in the Greenwood district were charred. An estimated 10,000 were left homeless. Hundreds of businesses and the livelihoods of thousands of Black residents were wiped out.
There isn't much in the way of academic research on the economic fallout of the massacre, but some experts estimate that in today's dollars the white mob decimated $200 million worth of Black property. $200 million gone, vanished over the course of 48 hours.
We don't talk about that part of the story much. If we talk about it at all, we talk about the violence, the lasting trauma, the faint sketches of secrets kept and shared quietly, whispered about. Even though it's all intertwined, we don't talk about what was stolen: business, property, wealth, freedom.
What you have today, what you own, where you live, what resources your neighborhood has access to is directly connected to the people that came before you, your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents. It's easy to count what you have. What's harder is account for what was lost. What happens when everything that was built before you is erased in an instant?
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. 100 years after the massacre, my team and I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma to tell a deeper, truer story of how a violent century-old theft and a denial of wealth ever since permeates the lives of descendants today. Along the way, we'll meet two Tulsa families: the Bagbys, whose business in the Greenwood district was destroyed...
Tori Tyson Bagby: I think it was traumatizing to see your city thrivin', your grandparents workin', and then you wake up and it's up in smoke.
Lee: And the Eatons, whose business was somehow left standing.
B. Eaton Jr.: If we weren't able to hold onto that, I wouldn't be here right now.
Lee: We'll tell you the story of the last 100 years in three acts. It's a story of how the fortunes of these two families were forever changed by the massacre. And it's a story of a community's fight to heal from trauma and reclaim what was stolen.
T. Tyson Bagby: It's over here.
Lee: Heading to Tulsa, I thought I'd find a hot, dusty city. Turns out it's cold and wet in late April. Rain is dancing off the roof of Tori Tyson Bagby's new salon.
T. Tyson Bagby: Oh, gosh. I will put out this (UNINTEL).
Lee: She's unpacking big, heavy boxes filled with hairdryers and shampoo bowls that finally arrived.
T. Tyson Bagby: I started out on Greenwood as a shampoo assistant in the '90s.
Lee: She's excited as she lifts stuff out of boxes. But for real, you can just tell there's somethin' else goin' on.
T. Tyson Bagby: I love my community. I love the resilience. And I really believe it's the spirit that they left from 1921, the massacre, you know, throughout the years of tryin' to rebuild.
Lee: Tori's community is on Greenwood Avenue, the main artery of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, or it was. The hair salon she owns, Blowout Hair Studio, moved last month and not by choice. After 14 years on Greenwood, Tori was evicted in March. She owns the business but never owned the building. The new shop she's renting is a 15-minute drive north.
T. Tyson Bagby: Greenwood, that spirit, you can feel the ancestors. You can feel the spirit, the lives that was lost on there. You know, I've been down there. So I walked around Greenwood a lot. I walked through those buildings a lot. So it was very hard. I cried, I cried.
Lee: Tori's great-grandparents lived through the 1921 massacre, so running a business on Greenwood Avenue gave her a deep sense of pride.
T. Tyson Bagby: I did not take it lightly. I respected the history. I wanted people down there to run Greenwood. I wanted them to honor the history. And so that was important for me.
Lee: She knows she's a descendant of survivors, but she doesn't know much more than that. Like a lot of folks I met in Tulsa, Tori and her family didn't talk about the massacre.
T. Tyson Bagby: Growin' up, I didn't hear anything about it.
Lee: Act one: The Massacre. There are only three survivors of the Tulsa massacre living today. To understand what happened and what life was like in Greenwood before 1921, it's the children and grandchildren of those survivors who now hold the story. Tori's great-grandparents, Hurley (PH) and Mamon (PH) Bagby, passed away years ago. But she started asking her great-uncle Amos to help her fill in the gaps. Into America producer Aisha Turner met up with him at Tori's new salon.
Aisha Turner: Can you explain to me your relationship to Tori?
T. Tyson Bagby: She wants to know your relationship with me.
A. Bagby: Oh, that's my niece back there. And everything--
T. Tyson Bagby: Great-niece.
A. Bagby: Everything good, she got it.
T. Tyson Bagby: (LAUGH) Thank you, Amos.
Lee: Every couple weeks, Tori gives her great-uncle a trim and she asks him to tell her stories from back in the day.
T. Tyson Bagby: I usually record him when I'm cuttin' his hair. Especially when we was on Greenwood, I always recorded him. So listenin' to him, I always learn somethin' new.
A. Bagby: The first time I moved to Tulsa was in May of 1946.
Lee: Uncle Amos is 92 years old. He grew up in rural Oklahoma, about an hour south of Tulsa. He came to Tulsa out of high school, 25 years after the massacre. A few years later, he met the woman who would become his wife, Mattie Bagby. Mattie's parents were Pearlee (PH) and Mamon Bagby, Tori's great-grandparents. They survived the massacre, and Mattie and Amos heard stories about Greenwood back in the day.
A. Bagby: Greenwood was flourishin' then, baby. You get a hamburger for a dime. I mean a good hamburger, you know, and everything like that.
Lee: There are a lot of families who remember life the way it used to be.
Bobby Eaton Sr.: No, it was not hard to build business. That's what established Greenwood.
Lee: That's 85-year-old Bobby Eaton Sr. Mr. Eaton's grandparents and his dad, Joseph, also survived the massacre.
B. Eaton Sr.: We didn't have to leave what is known as the Greenwood area, or as "Niggertown," to go anywhere to get anything. Everything was available right north of Archer one mile all the way down to Pine.
Lee: The district was formed in 1906 when O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, naming it "Greenwood" after the town in Mississippi. It was forged by Black people for Black people, and business thrived.
B. Eaton Sr.: Booker T. Washington came here on a visit, and he looked at how Greenwood stood out over and above most cities he had ever been in that had Black business areas. He said, "This is Black Wall Street that you all have here."
Lee: Mr. Eaton's family owned a grocery store on North Norfolk Avenue.
B. Eaton Sr.: That was one of the grocery stores that was on Norfolk that my mom and dad and grandmother owned, right down the corner.
Lee: Pearlee Bagby owned a business in Greenwood, too, a burger shop. Here's Tori's great-uncle Amos again.
A. Bagby: They had a little place there on Lansing Street where you could go and get a hamburger and stuff like that. It was a nice, nice little pl.
Lee: But then, the massacre happened.
A. Bagby: She was there when they burned it down.
Lee: The restaurant that Pearlee owned was destroyed.
A. Bagby: And, man, they said they was runnin' for their lives and everything. And wasn't nobody gonna stay down there and get shot just for some property, for a house and everything. That's what they did.
Lee: The Bagbys lost their business, but the Eatons didn't. Their grocery store was farther north, in what Mr. Eaton described as the addition to Greenwood. It was part of the Black district but a mile or so outside of the center of the neighborhood. So it was spared from the destruction of 1921.
Photos in the Tulsa Historical Society and museum archives show just how bad it really was and how lucky the Eatons were. The Dreamland Theatre, the Stratford Hotel, and the offices of the two Black newspapers—the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun—were left in ruins.
Bits and pieces of information about how much wealth was erased come from court cases against insurance companies. At the time, there were $1.8 million in property loss claims. That would $27 million today. But to avoid compensating Black Tulsans, these agencies cited a riot clause in their policies and avoided paying millions for their destroyed homes, businesses, and property. For more than a year after the massacre, many Black families lived in tents where their houses once stood. Tori's Uncle Amos talked about that.
A. Bagby: Some of 'em stayed in tents out here by the park. Gettin' somethin' to eat was very difficult, you know, 'cause everything that Blacks had was burnt down and you had to go miles and miles around to get somethin' else, to another store.
Lee: With no help from the city, Black Tulsans tried to rebuild.
A. Bagby: Them Blacks really did come stick together because they was Southern Blacks. And all we did in the South was work. They put everybody back to work, and things began to get better. We had pool halls. We had three movie theatres there on Greenwood and everything. And I remember when Cab Calloway and a big time band came and played on Greenwood. They blocked Greenwood off and put a bunch of (UNINTEL) out there. That was in 1946.
Lee: Tori's family was part of that effort to literally rise from the ashes. Her great-grandmother Pearlee, Amos's mother-in-law, tried to revive her burger joint. But it didn't last long.
A. Bagby: 'Cause she was growin' old and everything like that.
Lee: For many, including Tori's family, it was impossible to start over and to reclaim their economic standing. Tori's family doesn't know what happened to the land they owned on Lansing where the burger shop once stood. They certainly don't own it anymore. For those plots of rubble, many Black Tulsans received offers, insultingly low offers from white buyers.
Back then, the Tulsa World newspaper wrote about it. One article reads, quote, "Several white men have made offers to Negro property owners, believing they will accept almost any price for their property in Africa, not only because they are hard pressed for money but because they fear to rebuild in Tulsa."
"Africa" or "Little Africa" was a term whites would regularly use to describe Greenwood. After the massacre, much of what was once owned by Black Tulsans fell into white hands. You see, Tulsa was just one example, one really horrendous example, of how prosperity was snatched away from Black Americans at the beginning of the 20th century.
It helped lay the foundation for the wealth gap in this country and explains why today the typical Black family has just a tenth of the wealth of the typical white family. So did it matter that the Eaton family's business was left standing, that they got to hold on to that land and the structure and the operation within those four walls? Of course it mattered.
B. Eaton Sr.: Today, there are only four structures left standing in the whole of North Tulsa that were Black-owned business buildings.
Lee: Is yours one of 'em?
B. Eaton Sr.: Yes.
Lee: Act two: Negro Removal.
B. Eaton Sr.: My dad, Joseph Eaton Sr., had a four-chair barbershop.
Lee: In 1945, Joseph Eaton tore down the family grocery on North Norfolk Avenue and rebuilt with a barbershop on one side, open space on the other, where future generations would eventually open their own businesses. The barbershop became a community gathering space. As a kid, Mr. Eaton would hang out there and learn about Tulsa's history.
B. Eaton Sr.: And I was privy to come in the shop and just sit down until later on I became a barber myself. But one thing I noticed: My dad's friends and customers would come in and they would talk about the riot as long as all of them knew each other. If you came in as a stranger, (CLAPS) everything shut down.
Lee: By the 1950s, from that shop in North Tulsa that had survived the massacre, Mr. Eaton watched as his city changed again. So Greenwood, even when you were comin' up, long after the massacre, had Black businesses. When did it start to change?
B. Eaton Sr.: When Negro removal came in and right before that when they built an expressway right through the heart of Greenwood business district.
Lee: Urban renewal, or "Negro removal" as Mr. Eaton calls it, began nationwide under the Housing Act of 1949. It was a series of so-called improvement programs with the goal of constructing new development by removing what were considered to be blighted areas.
Archival Recording: Last night, wreckers moved in and the neighborhood lost a 60-year-old restaurant. Progress will bring a shopping center and $40,000 townhouses in its place. Russ Ewing, NBC News.
Lee: But in the process, people were removed, houses were condemned and razed, and freeways rode rough shot over Tulsa's Black population decades after the massacre had wiped it out for the first time.
B. Eaton Sr.: Black folk were not included in determining what the quality of their life was going to amount to.
Lee: By the late '60s, early '70s, seven expressways, funded mostly by the federal government, had been built, choking off Greenwood's core district from the Black community it served. More than 1,000 businesses and homes had been claimed by the government and demolished. Yet again, Black Tulsans were stripped of the wealth they had built. And in many cases, they were stripped of the records of their wealth, too.
Urban renewal created a gap in property records. Old addresses disappeared from the books. The Eatons were able to hold on to the barbershop during urban renewal. But for Tori's family, the Bagbys, who lost their business during the massacre, this period—the 1950s, '60s, and the early '70s—goes a little dark.
T. Tyson Bagby: There's no records. My dad's side, I think it was a big gap due to the fact that he really experienced the trauma in Tulsa and the massacre.
Lee: What do you know about how your family moved forward after that?
T. Tyson Bagby: We really don't know. We just know we moved forward. We don't know how they did it or how hard it was. I just think it was traumatizing to wake up and see your city thrivin', your parents working, your cousins, your grandparents working, and then you wake up and it's up in smoke. My grandfather and they had a lotta issues with alcoholism. And so think it probably trickled down, you know, to my family.
Lee: People in Tori's family have struggled alcohol abuse, and she links this to the inherited trauma of the 1921 massacre. But they've also inherited something else.
T. Tyson Bagby: We also passed down the entrepreneurship.
Lee: After the break, a new generation of the Bagbys and the Eatons pick up where their parents left off. And in the long struggle to rebuild the wealth of their families, a modern a challenge presents itself. We'll be right back.
Archival Recording: You want somethin'?
Archival Recording: Yeah. Goin' to get some wings?
Lee: Act three: Gentrification.
Archival Recording: Lemon pepper.
Archival Recording: Okay, lemon pepper.
Archival Recording: Lemon pepper's work for me.
Archival Recording: Okay.
Archival Recording: Yeah, let me get you somethin' for it.
Archival Recording: Cool, cool.
B. Eaton Jr.: Well, I remember coming over here, gettin' a haircut in the barbershop. And every time I got a haircut, I had to go show grandma. (LAUGH) You know what I mean?
Lee: That's Mr. Eaton's son, Bobby Eaton Jr. Bobby Jr. grew up going to his family's barbershop.
B. Eaton Jr.: Come over to the house, and you go in, and she's, "Oh baby. Look at you. You so handsome." (LAUGH) You know what I mean? And so then you be, "Okay, grandma."
Lee: Bobby Jr. and I caught up on his front porch. It's a one-story home with white siding. The home used to be his grandparents' and is still filled with his grandmother's old furniture. It's right next door to the barbershop his father and grandfather used to run.
B. Eaton Jr.: My grandfather, Joe Eaton, and Louise Eaton, my grandmother, they were iconic Black people. You know, I put them high on the pedestal. My grandfather, he was a self-entrepreneur. I mean, he was all about Black Wall Street way of life. My grandmother, she was a journalist and she wrote a lotta columns in the newspapers and did things like that. They were Black people who were into Black people, uplifting Black people in the culture, and serving the community.
Lee: Bobby Jr., who is 66 years old, didn't follow in the family's footsteps by cutting hair. Instead, he went into the music business. He spent years traveling the world as a bassist with performers like Natalie Cole, Ike and Tina Turner, and Bobby Womack.
He settled in Houston for a while before moving back to Tulsa about seven years ago when his mom got sick. And in 2014, he gave his family's building on Norfolk a new life and turned the space attached to the barbershop into a community radio station, KBOB.
Archival Recording: Black-owned Black community radio, streaming--
Lee: There's a radio program hosted by teenagers...
Archival Recording: Well, let's talk about this.
Lee: A women's show, a musical festival every summer, people rolling up just to hang out.
Archival Recording: What's up, y'all? This is Charlie Wilson, and you're listening to 89.9 FM, Bobby Eaton's Show.
Lee: I mean, KBOB is clearly the place to be.
B. Eaton Jr.: The community has a lot to do with what's goin' on over there at the radio station because it's a community radio station. It's called Eaton Media Services. You know, I put my grandpa's and my daddy's name on it.
Lee: Eaton Media Services. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandparents before him, Bobby Jr.'s decision was the start of another generation of business ownership.
B. Eaton Jr.: My grandfather built the building.
Lee: Right there, he built that--
B. Eaton Jr.: Right there. He built it right there. My dad and my uncle allow me to be in there to run it. So we've got to get back to that kinda way of life, man. I mean, this house that we're in is close to 100 years old. You know, everything is old, but our family has kept the property. You know, and a lot of property like ours has been torn down and nobody knows that it once existed.
Lee: But today, there's a new threat to the livelihood of Black Tulsans.
B. Eaton Jr.: Gentrification is alive and kickin', man. You know, and Black people need to become aware, man, to see this kind of stuff and fight for rights.
Lee: After the massacre destroyed much of Greenwood and urban renewal undercut more of the neighborhood, gentrification has made it harder for Black Tulsans to hold on to their community. Over the decades, the footprint of the thriving Greenwood district has continued to shrink. And now, when people refer to Greenwood, we're mostly talkin' about a short stretch of historic Greenwood Avenue. You can walk it in minutes. Where 300 Black-owned businesses once stood, there are now only about 20.
B. Eaton Jr.: I think gentrification is a means of control.
Lee: Tens of millions of dollars are flooding into the city in the form of loans and grants, with the goal of supposedly revitalizing Greenwood ahead of anniversary. The money is race blind under Oklahoma law, but the city told us that it's gone mostly to white developers.
Today, Black Tulsans experience poverty and unemployment at rates more than two times higher than their white neighbors. That's according to an analysis of census data done by Human Rights Watch for the years 2012 through 2017. Property ownership is wealth, and Black entrepreneurs who once owned the land—like Tori's family—are now renters. There's nothing to pass down and nothing to inherit.
T. Tyson Bagby: It would have been a nice legacy to leave for my child.
Lee: It's something Tori Tyson Bagby is fighting against today as she settles into her new place.
T. Tyson Bagby: Your head miss me?
Female Customer: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
T. Tyson Bagby: I missed you too, head. Get no good lather. I ain't washed your hair in so long, I ain't gettin' no good lather. (LAUGH) They're gonna say, "Them curls is popping, girl. (LAUGH) Them curls is poppin', honey."
Lee: Tori did inherit the spirit of a business owner, passed down all the way from her great-grandmother Pearlee, who had that burger place on Lansing. In the 1980s, Tori's aunt opened a shop at 109 North Greenwood Avenue. Her cousin took it over in the '90s, and Tori opened it as her own spot, Blowout Hair Studio, in 2007 sandwiched between Wanda J's soul food restaurant and an account firm.
A bronze plaque on the sidewalk out front commemorates Dillard's Shoeshine Parlor, one of the businesses destroyed in 1921. These women owned businesses on Black Wall Street, but not since the massacre have they owned the building or the land beneath it.
The building is currently owned by the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and has been since 1981. The deed was granted by the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority. For Tori, renting from the Chamber of Commerce was okay at first. But things started to change a few years ago as the city started preparing for the centennial and gentrification crept in.
T. Tyson Bagby: Around 2015-'16, I started noticing the leadership changin' a lot and they wasn't acknowledging the businesses. You know, they were just...
Lee: Tori and other Black tenants noticed the buildings on Greenwood Avenue were not being properly maintained.
T. Tyson Bagby: They was not acknowledging that we need to do something with these buildings, that, you know, the roof is crumblin'. My roof's leakin'. I'm scared to redo my plumbin' because that it might crumble.
Lee: But the rent was still rising.
T. Tyson Bagby: So I think about two or three different tenants had moved. And then I was like, "What's goin' on?" They was like, "Well, they doubled my rent. I can't pay it."
Lee: Tori told us that her rent was raised over and over again throughout the past three years, going from $750 to $1,550 a month. Each year, Tori and the Chamber would fight over the lease. She'd agree to pay an increase. But at a certain point, she just couldn't pay what they were asking.
T. Tyson Bagby: By this time, I'm frustrated. "I'm not giving y'all nothin' more. I'm just gonna pay them the regular rate."
Lee: Paying the regular rent, without the increases, didn't really fly with the landlords. Tori began to receive notices for back rent until finally...
T. Tyson Bagby: This was December the 15th. The sheriff's at my door to serve me an eviction.
Lee: In January of 2021, Tori filed a lawsuit against the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, claiming that the Chamber's efforts to evict her were unethical. The community rallied to support her, but it wasn't enough. She lost her lawsuit and was evicted in March.
T. Tyson Bagby: They said they wasn't gonna give me a stay and I had to be out.
Lee: Obviously, it was a blow.
T. Tyson Bagby: Yeah.
Lee: But in that moment when you knew that you'd have to leave this building you'd been in for 14 years, what was the feeling? What was going through your mind?
T. Tyson Bagby: I broke down. I was tryin' to stay strong and not try to tell my clients, you know, what was goin' on. But they had been with me. So I was doin' hair, cryin' over their heads. And we was taking pictures and stuff. So it was really hard. So I just cried on my clients, my family. (CRYING)
Lee: We've reached out to the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. They didn't comment directly about Tori's case but heralded the number of Black-owned businesses currently on Greenwood. They wrote, "The majority of businesses on historic Greenwood Avenue are Black owned and operated. Today, Black Wall Street is more of a Black Main Street." They go on to say, "We are proud of our business owners." But for Tori, her family's legacy of having a business on Black Wall Street has been erased again. She keeps coming back to, "What if?"
T. Tyson Bagby: You know, 'cause I imagine where we would be had it not happened. Our family's been destroyed. You know? A lot of 'em disappeared and they never recovered. Houses destroyed, businesses destroyed. So it makes you wonder, "What would it be like had we not been destroyed?" You know, yeah, we resilient. We rebuild. You know, it makes it seem like it was easy for me to move my business within a month. And I feel like I was destroyed. So I can just imagine how they felt.
Lee: Gentrification means something different when you're the one holding the keys, with the power to buy, sell, or hold on to what you own. The Eatons are one of the few Tulsa families who survived the massacre and held on to that power. I asked Bobby Jr.'s dad, Mr. Eaton, about this. You've been able to hold on to your family's building. What do you think the prospects are for you to hold on to it the next generation?
B. Eaton Sr.: That property is now being speculated to be sold. Yes.
Lee: By who?
B. Eaton Sr.: Me and my brother who own it.
Lee: Wow. I'm surprised. Why do you want to sell?
B. Eaton Sr.: I'm tryin' to tell you. Tulsa, North Tulsa, has not been fair with the Eaton family. I'm still alive. My brother is still alive. We have kids that are alive.
Lee: So you're saying while you're still here and it is wealth, why not use that to generate some wealth--
B. Eaton Sr.: Right.
Lee: --make some money off it?
B. Eaton Sr.: Right. Say, hypothetically, they could give me $100 million. What do Bobby Eaton need with $100 million? (LAUGH) What am I gonna do with it? Only thing I can do with it is make the community better. My kids would be a recipient of it, other than people just talkin' about it. We have a desire to have a better quality of life also.
Lee: But Bobby Jr. doesn't see it that way.
B. Eaton Jr.: If we weren't able to hold on to that, I wouldn't be here right now. I wouldn't have a radio station. You know, I would be just like and we would be just like other families who've lost all their property. We wouldn't be able to share that history and save that history. I've gotta let my daughters and my sons and them know about some of this history.
T. Eaton: My great-grandfather, my grandfather, they created so many memories just here in this building.
Lee: Bobby Eaton III, who goes by "Trey," is 23 and works at the radio station. He sat in on my conversation with his dad, and he also hopes the family holds on to the building for practical reasons but emotional ones, too.
T. Eaton: If we don't continue to preserve what we have, we just gonna be left with the old memories. And if we continue to keep 'em, we can have and create more memories.
Lee: What's it like when you look up there and you see your name, "Eaton," and you know that's your great-granddaddy and great-great-grandmama's name right there? What's it like?
T. Eaton: It's like real special. You know, not too many of us have buildings with our names on it.
Lee: How proud are you to be a Eaton?
T. Eaton: Man, gotta be honest, man. Bein' a Eaton requires some extra, extra, extra tough skin.
T. Eaton: But bein' a Eaton is probably one of the most things I take pride in the most.
Lee: When it comes to the tough lessons though, this community has learned some tough lessons. What lessons do you learn from all that? And how do you think you might be able to as the next generation maybe make things better for us?
T. Eaton: Gotta start with ownership. So nobody can take what they have out from under you. 'Cause when you don't own what you don't own and you have a part in it, it can always be taken away.
Lee: That's a lesson right there: own, have a piece yourself. But Tori and her family never got the chance to own a piece of Greenwood after the massacre. Today, calls are growing louder in Tulsa for the city to repay what was stolen from Black families 100 years ago through reparations.
There's even a lawsuit making its way through the courts right now where a handful of survivors and descendants are suing the city of Tulsa for money. Part of the argument goes back to this insidious detail we mentioned earlier, that the insurance claims of survivors were denied because Black residents were deemed responsible for what happened.
The Bagbys aren't part of that fight. Tori wants to be a part of it. But without property records of the burger shop that used to stand on Greenwood, she feels she doesn't have the evidence to prove just how much wealth was stolen from her family.
While that plays out, Tori is trying to remain grateful for landing at her new spot, but she wouldn't have chosen it so far from the heart of everything. She's worried about how business will do, whether she'll be able to make enough money to survive. If it were up to her, she'd still be down on Greenwood Avenue. For a while, her old shop sat empty, windows covered. But about a week ago, a convenience store moved in. So have you been back?
T. Tyson Bagby: I went to Wanda J.'s two weeks ago, but I didn't even look in my spot. I just went straight in. And when I have drove down there since then, I go like on the side way. But I haven't just went down Greenwood.
Lee: Are you, like, avoiding it on purpose?
T. Tyson Bagby: No, I'm hurt. I'm hurt. I'm just hurt about havin' to leave from down there. I'm not gonna take the new space for granted, but I am really hurt. So I haven't been down there. I said I was gonna go down there and get somethin' to eat, but I (UNINTEL) back down there.
Lee: It sounds like that's home.
T. Tyson Bagby: It is my home. It's like hallowed grown, sacred ground.
Lee: "Home," that's what Greenwood and all of North Tulsa was and still is for so many Black people despite everything that's been taken. Not just in Oklahoma but all across the country, there's a reverence for this place. It sits in our hearts even if we've never been. As I sat across from Tori and saw the tears spilling from her eyes, I didn't just see pain. Tori's story, her family's story, and Black Tulsa's story is also one of resilience.
T. Tyson Bagby: We have no choice but to keep pushin'. What can you do? You know, lay around and cry? We talk about it now. You know, what would it be if we hadn't had this? But we keep pushin'. You know, they still startin' businesses. You know, even in town you got a lotta people opening up restaurants.
You got a shoe company. I have another cousin just opened up, I'm so proud of her. She just opened up a clothing store. We remember. We know what we coulda been. And I think that's why now it seems like it's comin' more, a lot more businesses openin' up, because we're feeling that energy. It's just spreadin' more and more and there's more support from each other. You know, so now it's like, "Oh, this Black-owned business openin'," (CLAPS) everybody's goin' to support it.
Lee: Support, yeah.
T. Tyson Bagby: Everybody's callin' or tellin' somebody whether or not, you know? So.
Lee: In this moment, are you still hopeful? Do you feel like it's a rough patch and you'll make it through? How you feel?
T. Tyson Bagby: I'm hopeful.
T. Tyson Bagby: My clients been so supportive. My business, it's gettin' back there, you know? So I'm very hopeful. I'm just ready to keep moving forward and going to the next step, the next level.
Lee: Next week on Into America, we continue our coverage of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre with a look at how the story of what happened was buried for decades and what it will take for white Tulsans to finally reckon with their past. Why do you think it is that there are so many white people who are still so reluctant to just embrace the truth and at least confront the truth?
Archival Recording: I would just say shame.
Lee: Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you don't miss that episode. And a quick shout-out to the NBC News Digital Documentary Unit who we teamed up with to tell these stories from the massacre. Thank you to Ernesto Guadalupe, Nirma Hasty, Ala’a Ibrahim, and Brock Stoneham for collaborating with us.
Check our documentary Blood on Black Wall Street: The Legacy of the Tulsa Massacre on Friday, May 28th to learn more about how the legacy of the massacre is continuing to play out in the city today. You can also catch it on MSNBC this Sunday, May 30th, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll drop a link in the show notes.
And before we wrap today, we've got a quick favor to ask of you. We'd like to know more about you, our Into America listeners. We want to hear what you like about the show, what you don't like, what you want more of. So hope you'll take a little survey for us so we can make a better podcast for you.
It's easy. Just text "America" to 66866, and we'll text you a link to a short survey. Again, text the word "America" to 66866. Standard text messaging rates apply, and your input really matters to us. So we hope you'll take a few minutes to complete the survey. We appreciate it.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.