This image has been passed around in my circles:
“Black Wall Street” is a reference to the Tulsa Race Riots.
On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a woman named Sarah Page. The details of what followed vary from person to person, and accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered blacks began retreating to the Greenwood Avenue business district[, or “Black Wall Street”].
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report indicating that historians now believe close to 300 people died in the riot.
Sometimes I’m ashamed of my race, white people are a brutal bunch who will riot at the drop of a hat. But getting back on topic, an event that large has a fair bit of documentation. Wikipedia offers up this image of casualties being taken away from the riots, for instance, taken from this source.
… waaaitaminute, the car designs are quite different. The automobile was quite new back in the 1920’s, and their design still took a lot of inspiration from the horse carriages they replaced. The sleek metal designs in the “before” image look like they date from much later, when cars had largely shed this historical tie.
Come to think of it, the Race Riots happened in 1921. Prohibition went national in the United States one year earlier, in 1920. So anyone advertising “drugs and liquor” would have been flagrantly violating the law. Conversely, once Prohibition was over in 1933 many places would be proud to advertise liquor sales and pull in the cash formerly spend on illegal booze. As for “drugs,” that word has a very different meaning after several decades of “war.” While drugs and racism have gone hand-in-hand for a good century, bear in mind that heroin was once an over-the-counter drug; word meanings can change over time, turning something once considered “good” into a “bad” thing.
Hang on, rewind back a bit: modern people would view “drugs” as bad. We also have a stereotype of “drugs” as being something worthy of punishment when non-Caucasian races do them, while Whites who use drugs deserve compassion and mercy. So by implying “Black Wall Street” was centered around drug and liquor use, whoever put that caption there was trying to trigger racist stereotypes but do it in a sneaky way.
So if that image isn’t of Tulsa in 1921, where and where did it come from?
Johnson was born in segregated Jacksonville in 1926, given up by his parents, and raised in poverty. Less than 20 years later, he would be on the opposite coast, a student at an elite art school. It was the first year of a photography program headed by Adams who — while not yet a full-fledged national figure — was already celebrated in the world of art and photography.
And Johnson was his youngest student, his only black student.
He didn’t have the means to document Yosemite, like his famous mentor. So, using a 4X5 view camera he carried everywhere, he followed the advice of others. Shoot what you know. Shoot what you see.
In 2014, the Harvey Milk Photo Center held a retrospective of this famous street photographer. Care to guess what image they chose for the advertisements?
That’s “Looking South on Fillmore Street,” dating from 1947 and located in California, not 1921 and in Oklahoma.
That was quite a bit of work to debunk a single image. But given that the original intent of promoting racism has instead turned into a history lesson on drugs, racism, and automobiles, I’d say the resulting subversion rewarded it handily.