Occupy Wall Street Takes Us Back to Our Roots

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

The east coast was hit by a historic nor’easter this past weekend blanketing areas from Maryland to Massachusetts with heavy, wet snow ranging from almost 3 inches in New York City’s Central Park to 19 inches in West Milford, New Jersey.

Occupy Wall Street Protesters at Zuccotti Park in NYC during nor'easter.

More than 3 million customers lost power because of the thousands of toppled trees and branches that brought down power lines and transformers causing outages.  Amtrak and commuter train service was suspended and airports either closed or delayed flights during the height of the storm.

In Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street Protest, the occupants battened down the hatches with plastic tarps and tents and bundled up in sleeping bags to endure the freezing temperatures.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent the NYC Fire Department inspectors to the park on Friday to confiscate propane gas tanks and generators, ostensibly because they posed a hazard to the crowded park, so the protesters improvised keeping warm with donated coats, hats, gloves and blankets.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement has spawned Occupy Protests in cities across America including San Diego; Oakland; Portland; Seattle; Minneapolis; Nashville; Washington, DC; and Providence.  The movement has also branched out globally – to Occupy London, Occupy Seoul, Occupy Berlin, Occupy Madrid, Occupy Antwerp, Occupy Amsterdam and to other international cities.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is protesting the current economic conditions wrought by the greedy financial institutions and the political system that feeds and protects the corporate fat cats.  It’s important to take a look back and understand the origins of Wall Street.

Wall Street got its name from the wall that was erected by Director General Peter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company in 1653. Using the labor of African workers, the wall, situated on the northern border of the colony and constructed of wooden logs, stretched across Lower Manhattan from the East River to the Hudson River.

The wall (on the far right) that the African workers built in New Amsterdam for which Wall Street was named.

This crude wall was built to protect the settlement of New Amsterdam from intruders.

The Wall Street vicinity has always been the financial hub of New York City and was where traders in Colonial New York bought and sold commodities on the street and at the Merchants’ Coffee House on Water and Wall Streets and, later, across the street at the Tontine Coffee House at 82 Wall Street.  At Tontine’s the informal financial center was organized under the Buttonwood Agreement of 1792 forming the foundation of the New York Stock & Exchange Board.

Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water Streets in Colonial New York where commodities, such as slaves, were traded.

The Tontine Coffee House was where captains of ships involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade registered their cargo of coffee, tea, sugar, cotton and enslaved Africans. The enslaved African men and women were then traded, according to Columbia University’s Mapping the African American Past Web site, by “the companies that insured, outfitted and owned the boats…on the stock market.”  The Exchange moved to larger quarters at 40 Wall Street and then to its current home at 11 Wall Street.

The African American contribution to the early financial history of the United States is left out when recounting the emergence of the capitalist society.  In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma was a boom town.  Tulsans had struck oil around 1910 and black gold was the currency.  The Midwestern city had a significant African American population.  Enslaved and free Blacks had settled in Oklahoma in the late 1830s after traveling with the members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw Nations on the “Trail of Tears.”

Native Americans forcibly removed from their land in the south traveled to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

The Native Americans had been physically forced off their land in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama by the U.S. government and relocated to Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma.  African Americans also migrated to Tulsa during the Great Migration of the early 1900s, joining relatives and friends that had taken up residence in Oklahoma.

Black Tulsans lived in an area that some whites referred to as “Little Africa,” but most African Americans called their community Greenwood and because it was the hub of Black prosperity, it was also known as the Negro Wall Street and later Black Wall Street.  More than 10,000 Blacks lived in the community adjacent to Tulsa’s white downtown.  Greenwood Avenue was the main drag and the center of the commercial district whose prosperity was fueled by oil money. The city was home to several Black millionaires, successful entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and educators.

Black-owned and operated businesses dotted the south end of Greenwood Avenue and the surrounding area including clothing and dry goods stores, meat markets and grocery stores, barber shops and beauty parlors, cleaners, an upholstery shop, jewelers and many more businesses that catered to a Black clientele.

Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma

There were also restaurants, two theaters, a professional building with offices for doctors, lawyers, realtors and other businesses and a hotel.  Two Black newspapers – the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun – provided the latest news.  A library, a YMCA, social and civic organizations and more than a dozen Black churches provided services to the large community.

As Black Tulsa thrived, resentment was brewing in the white community.  Some Tulsans were threatened by the success and wealth of the Greenwood residents and the city became the perfect launching pad for the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.  Stoked by the hate group and the rumored assault of a white woman by a Black man, Greenwood became the target of the wrath of the white community on May 31, 1921.  Hundreds of African Americans were chased out of their homes and businesses of which more the 1,200 were burned to the ground.  As many as 300 black men, women and children were killed by the white mobs and 8,000 displaced Black residents pitched tents amongst their ruined neighborhoods or were detained in camps.  It is estimated that $1.5 million in property was damaged or destroyed by the rioters.

The Tulsa Race Riot was the deadliest race riot in American history and 90 years later, it is still not taught in history classes across the U.S.  Tulsa students will finally be taught about the Tulsa Riot next year when it will be part of the history curriculum.  In January 2011, Tulsa finally acknowledged their horrific past and dedicated the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.  The park is the first step in honoring and remembering what happened in 1921.

Reconciliation Tower, a bronze sculpture by Ed Dwight, erected in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, Tulsa, OK.

Historian John Hope Franklin and his family were survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot, but it is important to note that the survivors, some of whom are in their 90s, have not received any compensation for the loss of their property.

Before the riot, Black Wall Street was a shining example of economic sustainability as Black businesses thrived in providing goods and services to its customers, circulating each dollar up to a year before it left the Greenwood community.  The inflamed rage of the white “have nots” was able to destroy this successful example of American capitalism serving the needs of ordinary people.

Now, a disgruntled middle class of mostly white Americans is embracing a strategy of nonviolent protest that gave African Americans equal rights, but not economic parity.  The Occupy Wall Streeters have struck a chord that reverberates not only with the middle class, but also with the “have nots” around the globe.  The protesters recognize that we are all victims of corporate greed and the consolidation of the financial, communications, telecom and oil industries that have done away with millions of jobs, created an environment where there are massive foreclosures in the housing market and endangered our way of life while amassing huge profits for a very few, dare I say, the 1%.

In the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” drafted in September 2011, organizers stated:  “…that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their brethren; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”

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3 Responses to Occupy Wall Street Takes Us Back to Our Roots

  1. Stephanie Thomas says:

    Linda, again you have written a powerful, well-researched piece which not only educates and informs, but inspires us. Thank you for what you do.

    • Thank you Stephanie. It is really important for me to receive your feedback, it let’s me know that I am informing, educating and inspiring readers of my work. There is so much information about our history and how it is all connected and hopefully I am providing that link.

  2. I compliment you highly for this information. Since 1957, I have been a serious student of general and specific history, but the acquisition of knowledge never ends. I knew some basics about Tulsa, and the Indian removal, but your research increased my knowledge in some very positive ways. Also, I am very pleased whenever I find out about new progressive scholars such as you. Thanks, people like you, and the millions world wide in the many “Occupy” movements, are indeed a great birthday present for this 77 year old man. I have been active since the late 50s, and have been active in Occupy Boston, and also Occupy the Hood, plus other activities against oppression and for liberation. Here are some books that should be of interest: “Worse Than Slavery” by David M. Oshinsky; “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglass Blackmon; “Capitalism and Slavery” by Eric Williams; “White Cargo” The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh; “Medical Apartheid” The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present, by Harriet A. Washington; and finally “Working Towards Whiteness” How American Immigrants Became White, by David R. Hoediger. I used to sell books on African/African American history, and many other subjects. In the next comment section after this, is a one page synopsis of some of my activities since 1960. Also, in one or two more, is some info from my files.

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