The historic business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as ‘Black Wall Street’ came about as a result of the oil boom of the 1910s. The area of northeast Oklahoma flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood, and was a testament to the robust African-American economy during the early Twentieth Century.
Called Black Wall Street because of its prominence within the community, the neighborhood was comprised of black-owned businesses, schools, churches and community organizations that promoted pride and prosperity. Prohibited to live in the same areas as whites, blacks lived cooperatively in order to survive, and the all-black community thrived. Trouble came in June 1921 when black folks were massacred during a race riot that left about 300 people dead and many buildings destroyed.
Born just a short time later on February 2, 1922, Harold M. Anderson would later document the lives of new generations of Black Wall Street residents between 1948 and 1952. His 8 mm film, now part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, highlights the vibrant and entrepreneurial African American community, revived and thriving almost 30 years after the riot.
Anderson’s own life as a black businessman is as fascinating as the business phenomena he captured on film. An inventor, serial entrepreneur, business manager, filmmaker and real estate developer, Anderson grew up poor, as one of 19 children. He started out early in life tap dancing in the street for money.
“He always knew what he wanted,” said daughter Pat Sanders. “He graduated high school and college. He met Mother on a Thursday and married her on a Sunday, and they were married for 56 years. Who does that?”
From the 1950s to mid 1960s, Anderson owned several enterprises in and around North Tulsa, including a strip mall, movie theatre, and bowling alley. He later bought several acres of land and eventually built the multi-million dollar Crestview Estates for senior residents.
In the mid 50’s he was the business manager for the Harlem Globetrotters. Sanders recalled what it was like touring with the team in segregated Mississippi as a child:
“They travelled and that was when blacks weren’t welcome in hotels. So they had to plan and live with a black family in the town they went to so they could have a place to stay and someone to cook for them. When I was a little girl, I had to come from the balcony where the black folks sat, to the front row to help Goose Tatum with a Globetrotter stunt. When I got up to go back to the balcony, white boys started throwing popcorn at me and called me a nigger. A white man got up and walked me back to my seat. That was my first experience with racism.”
Anderson never allowed racism to darken his dreams, Sanders said. He would pitch any investor who would listen. One day, he went to see a billionaire about investing in his bowling alley. “Daddy was dressed up in his suit and went all the way up to the penthouse. They questioned why he was there. He was told he had to go and wait outside. Then this cowboy comes up with a greasy hat and scuffed shoes. Daddy introduced himself, and he was so energetic about his ideas. He got to talking and learned that man was the billionaire. He got the money to build his bowling alley—The Apache Lanes, a 20-lane bowling alley with a restaurant.”
Anderson came up with several inventions over the years, including an early version of a big screen television made from plastic and a large magnifying glass. At a football game, he filmed the action from the sideline. When there was a dispute over whether a player caught the ball inbound, Anderson slowed down the film speed and replayed what had happened. He predicted that the technique would become a standard part of televised sports. Now it is known as instant replay.
As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, more choices opened up for black Tulsa residents. The once close knit community began to break away as some left for other parts of the state and country. Anderson’s multiple businesses began to lose customers, though he maintained equity in a number of enterprises. In the 60s, he became Rev. Harold M. Anderson, senior pastor of New Faith Baptist Church in Tulsa.
“When integration came, it was good in one way and bad in another. Segregation recycled black dollars. I think when segregation stopped, we stopped being close, and it’s why we have so much crime and we don’t support each other,” Sanders said.
To view clips from Anderson’s Black Wall Street film, use this abbreviated link to the Getty Images website: http://tinyurl.com/nz7tgrt.