Truck carrying African Americans to safety during the Tulsa race riot of May 31 through June 1, 1921. The official death count was 39 but other estimates range from 55 to 300. Photo by Alvin C. Krupnick Company, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

100 Years Later the Tulsa Massacre Teaches Us the Power of Capitalism

by Dee Dee Bass Wilbon and Deana Bass Williams (#TheBassSisters)

May 31- June 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Over the last week, there have been several events, documentaries and primetime cable features telling the story of Black Wall Street. While we grew up learning about this vibrant and prosperous African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this history is not widely known. American textbooks should share the details about how a black man was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. The accusation led to over 300 black citizens being massacred, thousands more injured, and one of the most prosperous black communities in America completely burned, looted and destroyed.

There are many lessons we can learn from Black Wall Street. We believe one of the most overlooked lessons is what a community can achieve if individuals are given authority over their ideas and rightful ownership of the fruits of their labor.

The Black community in Tulsa pre-1921 is a case study of free markets and the power of capitalism. When left to thrive independent of destructive government forces, people of little means can create wealth and prosperity through the free market. It was ingenuity, thrift, hard work and yes, capitalism that gave birth to Black Wall Street.

We have heard arguments that capitalism is a corrupt economic model that caused the riots and paved the way for people’s property to be taken. On this point, we strongly disagree. Racism, mob rule, and the government putting its brutal bloodied thumb on the scale brought a tragic end to the prosperity that was ushered in by capitalism.

Last week at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing, we heard the testimony of 3 survivors of the massacre. Viola Ford Fletcher (107) was joined by her brother, World War II veteran Hughes Van Ellis (100) and fellow survivor Lessie Benningfield Randall (106). Fletcher, or Mother Fletcher as she is known, was seven years old when the massacre destroyed her happy childhood and middle-class existence. With dignity and uncommon grace, she shared the story of how she never advanced beyond a fourth-grade education and worked as a domestic servant in the homes of white people.

Some officials have argued that the statute of limitations has run out, and the families have no proper legal recourse. This argument should fall on deaf ears. Mother Fletcher and the other survivors came to seek the justice that eluded their parents, who made their pleas for justice long before the statute of limitations ran out.

In our family, a small patch of wooded land in Talbot County, Ga, a single-family home in Wilmington, De and a small condo in Alexandria, Va is our Black Wall Street. This property is the legacy wealth that we have managed to accumulate for the generation that comes after us — Dee Dee’s 19-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. The foundation that this property will give them as young adults is financial freedom.

If someone could just come and take the property away from us simply because they wielded power, we would be devastated. The setback to our descendants would be measurable.

As proud free-market capitalists and conservatives, we feel confident in saying these families should be compensated for property loss and legacy wealth not grown when they identify property taken away from them illegally through the years when justice was not available to them.

While the Tulsa Massacre may be one of the most well-known cases of stolen black wealth, it is most certainly not the only case. We do not doubt that Tulsa survivors are a fraction of those across the country who will be able to make claims to land and property that for decades remained stolen. In these cases, we must all stand for justice.

Some members of the subcommittee on civil rights unwisely link the injustice of Tulsa with a call for reparations to all Black Americans for slavery. We believe that would be a mistake. Americans can easily accept that Tulsa survivors should be compensated for land that was robbed from their families. However, cutting every descendant of slaves a check is not the solution to righting the wrongs and setbacks caused by 400 years of African American bondage. Reparation checks for Black Americans are a temporary economic boost when long-term economic solutions are needed. Long-term solutions include jobs, affordable housing, infrastructure investments in black communities that have seen disinvestment for decades.

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The Bass Sisters

Dee Dee Bass Wilbon & Deana Bass Williams are co-founders of Bass Public Affairs and co-hosts of the podcast, Policy and Pound Cake.