In the late evening hours of May 31, 1921, an employee of a hotel in the all-Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa rushed over to a house on King Street. He woke the family inside, warning that Black people were being shot indiscriminately by a vicious mob of white vigilantes.
The family scrambled to leave, then walked towards the railroad tracks that segregated Tulsa, hoping the steel rails would serve as a clear avenue out of town. A white stranger walked up and warned that the mob was waiting along the tracks for Black people attempting to flee Greenwood, sending the family into even more panic in their search of a route to safety.
Two family members got separated from the pack and eventually clambered into the Arkansas River, which they traversed in harrowing fashion for over 20 miles until they arrived in Sapulpa. The rest of the group narrowly evaded the heavily armed mob, which fired bullets relentlessly while looting and burning houses and businesses. Eventually, current Tulsa businessman Leroy Gibbs II’s grandmother Ernestine and her family made it to the safety of the state fairgrounds.
“I was fortunate my grandmother was a survivor, but there are so many that weren't,” said Gibbs II.
“I went through anger,” Gibbs added. “I imagine my grandmother as a 17-year-old girl having to be in that environment, bullets flying and fires. I’ve been in the military. I’ve been to war – Desert Storm. To have that imagery in my head of my grandmother, it’s disheartening that people would do this to other people that way.”
This Saturday, May 29, 2021, as the city of Tulsa acknowledge the centennial of the 1921 Race Massacre, descendants of survivors like Leroy Gibbs II will be recognized at the Honoring Survivors and Descendants Luncheon. That luncheon will be hosted by the Black Wall Street Legacy Fest and the Oklahoma City Thunder, both of which are focused on using their platforms to allow the three living survivors and the many descendants of survivors to tell their stories and to remind Tulsans what was mercilessly destroyed in the massacre.
Learn more about the upcoming Black Wall Street Legacy Festival and Tulsa Centennial Commission events honoring Greenwood's legacy @BWSLegacyFest | https://t.co/bsaolo6vCi@GreenwoodRising | https://t.co/zze6I7QK06 pic.twitter.com/bXSWj8zyZ7— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 26, 2021
Dozens, if not hundreds of Black Tulsans were killed on the night of May 31 and the morning of June 1, 1921. The true number will likely never be known. Thousands of homes were turned into ashes and rubble. Institutions that once thrived were turned into shot-out husks, with no humanity to fill them again. The message in the mob’s bullets was clear to the former Greenwood residents, scattered like thousands of shards of glass across the northeast part of Oklahoma – try to stand up on your own two feet and see what happens next.
Prior to May 31, 1921, that’s exactly what the community of Greenwood had done – sprout from the soil and rise through the concrete into a self-sustaining “Black Wall Street”. The neighborhood of 11,000 people was more than just the homes and businesses it contained. It was a community that looked out for one another and kept money circulating inside its own ecosystem, which lifted the standard of living for every resident.
“It was a successful community,” said Gibbs II’s wife Tracy. “When we talk about the destruction of Black Wall Street, we talk about the destruction of knowledge, the destruction of people being able to learn from one another and people being able to thrive and build with one another.”
Ernestine’s family returned to Tulsa days after the massacre but found no trace of their home or possessions. Their only option was to live in the quarters of a white family who allowed them to stay while Ernestine’s mother worked as their housekeeper. Despite the precarity foisted upon her at 17 years old, Ernestine finished her education at Booker T. Washington High School, earned a teaching degree and then came back to her alma mater to teach.
After meeting Leroy II’s grandfather, also named Leroy, Ernestine settled into family life, retired from teaching and used her retirement funds to help start a swath of family businesses that she and Leroy ran together. First it was crossing the county line to buy chickens, then bringing them back to Tulsa to sell to residents. Then came a grocery store, a laundromat, a restaurant, a hardware store and even a juke joint. Just decades after a violent mob signaled that any attempt at Black excellence would be ruthlessly punished, Ernestine and Leroy Gibbs built up a business empire with faith and fearlessness.
“It was more than just the loss of everything they had,” said Gibbs II. “There was a breakdown of the people to trust, and it even probably instilled a sense of fear, of ‘if we try to do this, what’s going to happen is they're going to take it away from us again’. So, for my grandparents to just had that tenacity, even to this day, when I think about it sometimes it just amazes me what they were able to accomplish.”
“When we talk about the destruction of Black Wall Street, we talk about the destruction of knowledge, the destruction of people being able to learn from one another and people being able to thrive and build with one another."
Before joining the Marine Corps and serving the United States overseas, Gibbs II gained some of that precious hand-me-down business acumen from his grandfather at his stores. He helped school kids learn math in the candy shop – making them count out how many sweets they could buy with the change they brought in. He helped with his grandfather’s finances and noticed the hundreds of un-cashed IOU “tickets” that his grandfather wrote up but never collected. People in the community needed to eat more than the Gibbs needed the cash. That ethos was an attempt to recapture the idea that made Greenwood thrive a half century before – each one looks out for each one.
“It changed my mindset,” said Gibbs II. “You think of business, you would think of money - that's the first thing people want to think of. But no, you want to think of the people that you serve.”
As a teenager, he wore the Gibbs’ patented crisp, clean white outfits, topped with a hat. He had to “get gussied up” to live up to Ernestine’s high standards. So dedicated to excellence was Ernestine that when Gibbs II wrote her a heartfelt letter during his grueling basic training in the Marines, her response was to send the letter back marked up with corrections. Her persistence and expectations of excellence were what helped the Gibbs’ family businesses thrive for decades. Eventually, they could no longer compete with the competition proverbially swarming in from across the railroad tracks.
After the massacre in 1921, the Greenwood district was never going to resemble what it once did, but even now the majority of the blocks aren’t lined with black-owned houses or businesses. Institutions, especially ones owned by those in the neighborhood, are the lifeblood of a thriving community that provides upward mobility.
“I wish we would just realize the essence of what was there and understand that's really sacred ground,” Tracy said of the Greenwood district. “If you ever see the diminishing of rooftops, you’ll see the diminishing of businesses. So now you begin to see a transient community of people because there's no businesses in that community that keep them sustained.”
Recently, Leroy II and Tracy have tapped back into the Gibbs business legacy by launching Gibbs Next Generation – a shopping center less than five miles north of Greenwood that hosts all black-owned businesses. In addition to doing commerce, Gibbs Next Generation follows in its ancestors’ footsteps by providing community services – encouraging children’s literacy and providing space for artists to invest in themselves. Much like Leroy II was able to learn from his grandfather, the youngest member of the Gibbs family – Leroy “Tripp” Gibbs III is getting an education too.
“What you do today is actually based on what other people did before you, so don't take it for granted,” said Tracy, while delivering her message to Tripp as well.
In order to get Gibbs Next Generation off the ground, Tracy Gibbs retired from her job at an insurance company, gathered those retirement savings and took a chance on building a Black-owned business in Tulsa, just like her “mother-in-love” Ernestine did decades before.
“All this started the same way it started before,” said Gibbs II.
With courage and conviction, the Gibbs’ family history is repeating itself. All the while, their city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma are doing more than ever to pay attention to a horrific event that was intentionally forgotten, with the goal of ensuring that brand of history never happens again.