Built from the Fire
The Epic Story of Tulsa's Greenwood District, America's Black Wall Street
A multigenerational saga of a family and a community in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street,” that in one century survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, urban renewal, and gentrification
“The scope, the elegance, and the power of Victor Luckerson’s tale is simply breathtaking and empowering.”—Carol Anderson, author of White Rage
When Ed Goodwin moved with his parents to Greenwood, Tulsa, in 1914, his family joined a growing community on the cusp of becoming a national center of black life. But, just seven years later, on May 31, 1921, the teenaged Ed hid in a bathtub as a white mob descended on his neighborhood, laying waste to thirty-five blocks and murdering as many as three hundred people. The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the most brutal acts of racist violence in U.S. history, a ruthless attempt to smother a spark of black independence.
But that was never the whole story of Greenwood. The Goodwins and their neighbors soon rebuilt it into “a Mecca,” in Ed’s words, where nightlife thrived, small businesses flourished, and an underworld economy lived comfortably alongside public storefronts. Prosperity and poverty intermixed, and icons from W.E.B. Du Bois to Muhammad Ali ambled down Greenwood Avenue, alongside maids, doctors, and every occupation in between. Ed grew into a prominent businessman and bought a newspaper called the Oklahoma Eagle to chronicle Greenwood’s resurgence and battles against white bigotry. He and his wife, Jeanne, raised an ambitious family, and their son Jim, an attorney, embodied their hopes for the Civil Rights Movement in his work. But by the 1970s, urban renewal policies had nearly emptied the neighborhood, even as Jim and his neighbors tried to hold on to it. Today, while new high-rises and encroaching gentrification risk wiping out Greenwood’s legacy for good, the family newspaper remains, and Ed’s granddaughter Regina represents the neighborhood in the Oklahoma state legislature, working alongside a new generation of local activists.
In Built from the Fire, journalist Victor Luckerson moves beyond the mythology of Black Wall Street to tell the story of an aspirant black neighborhood that, like so many others, has long been buffeted by racist government policies. Through the eyes of dozens of race massacre survivors and their descendants, Luckerson delivers an honest, moving portrait of this potent national symbol of success and solidarity—and weaves an epic tale about a neighborhood that refused, more than once, to be erased.
Journalist Luckerson debuts with an immersive history of Greenwood, the prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., that was burned to the ground by white rioters in 1921. Detailing multiple phases of the neighborhood's history, he notes that by 1920, Greenwood boasted Black-owned beauty shops, grocery stores, and saloons, as well as A.J. Smitherman's Tulsa Star newspaper, which covered topics of interest to Black Tulsa, and the Stradford Hotel, which owner J.B. Stradford intended to cater to affluent Black customers. After the massacre, Greenwood residents overcame many obstacles to reestablish the area as a rich wellspring of Black culture and business, but highway construction and "urban renewal" programs in the 1960s and '70s splintered the community. Documenting the fight to maintain the spirit of Greenwood, Luckerson spotlights the Goodwin family, including patriarch J.H. Goodwin, who left Mississippi for Tulsa in 1913, and his great-granddaughter Regina Goodwin, the only Black woman in Oklahoma's House of Representatives. The sprawling narrative also touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, the search for mass graves of the riot's victims, and debates over how best to mark the 2021 centennial of the massacre. It's a comprehensive and impassioned portrait of a community fighting for its survival. Photos.