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Investment in Black founders is key to rebuilding America’s Black Wall Street

Nehemiah Frank
A descendant of families who lived in the Greenwood District known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Nehemiah D. Frank founded the Black Wall Street Times in 2017. | Photo by: Denice Toombs-Dotson

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Black Wall Street Times, Nehemiah D. Frank, writes that access and equitable investment are critical to addressing the widening racial wealth gap.


As a descendant of families who built one of the most remarkable self-sustaining Black business ecosystems in American history – the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, dubbed Black Wall Street – I am repeatedly asked the question: Do you think Black Wall Street will ever be rebuilt?

For someone whose family survived the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre, the worst act of racial violence against Black lives on domestic American soil, this well-intended question is admittedly a sore spot for me. It’s a painful reminder that what was is no longer.

But like my ancestors, who for months slept in tents after their homes and businesses were destroyed during the pillaging, burning, and bombing, I stand resilient today.

So, I always respond to their curiosity concerning my thoughts about Greenwood’s future with optimism. I enthusiastically tell them: I absolutely believe we can rebuild Black Wall Street, but not in its original form and location of Greenwood, Archer, and Pine streets.

Greenwood, like most major cities, has experienced a decline in Black storefronts, coupled with a freeway splitting the community in half (courtesy of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which developed highways directly, and systematically, through Black and brown communities). I often encounter tourists journeying to the once-fabled Black Wall Street. In real-time, I watch the light dim in their eyes after they asked me, “How does one get to Black Wall Street?” My reply is, “You’re in it.” Their instant reaction is, “This is it?”

“Yes, these two 1925 replicas are the only edifices left.”

A photograph of the devastation that occurred to Black Wall Street on the north side of Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the handwritten names of the businesses that were destroyed.
Greenwood Rising, a community organization dedicated to the education of Oklahomans and Americans about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, shared this image of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street, on their Instagram page to mark the anniversary of the May 31, 1921, tragedy. The thriving Black community with many homes, businesses, schools, and churches was systematically destroyed by a white mob. Community members suffered loss of life and property. Recorded on the photograph are the names of businesses destroyed on the west side of Greenwood Ave. looking north from Archer Street.

In Greenwood’s early days, O.W. Gurley, the community’s founder, created pathways for many of the Black businesses that evolved the district into a self-sustaining powerhouse. Gurley might even be considered one of America’s foremost venture capitalists of the early 20th century; without his willingness to bet on Black founders, Black Wall Street would have never existed.

The economic power of Black business has always existed – despite it all – and the promise of Black Wall Street can exist again, and at scale.

My optimism comes from years of growing up as a military brat. I haven’t always lived in Tulsa. I had the privilege of growing up across the country and spent my later adolescent years in suburban Washington, D.C., where I experienced my own economic, social, and racial awakening.  

I noticed the differences between how inner-city Black poverty looked versus the astronomical wealth of the suburbs.

I’ll never forget the day I experienced W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness while on a church mission trip to the Anacostia neighborhood, or southeast D.C., in the ’90s. There I was, this privileged Black suburban kid serving an inner-city Black community.

Nothing could have prepared me for that soul-crushing awakening. The images of Black poverty I encountered that day depressed me for weeks. So much so that I would chronically ask myself, “Why? Why did these Black people end up there, and why was I the lucky Black kid who got to live life more abundantly?”

It would be years before I would discover the answers to those questions. I would later learn that access was one of the missing links to their lives.

Like the Greenwood community, in my suburban community, I had everything I needed to thrive and become successful. Not only did I have the example of Black excellence to inspire my mind, but I also had access to high-quality education and to networks with people who had experience in various industries. Knowing them personally and being in their close proximity gave me the confidence to believe that I, too, could achieve something extraordinary.

But for me, being a Black American, little did I know that the blueprint for Black entrepreneurial success could be found in the history of my beloved community back home in Tulsa.

What if today, more venture capitalists followed O.W. Gurley’s lead by betting on Black?

What if today, more venture capitalists followed O.W. Gurley’s lead by betting on Black?

If Black founders had access to the right kind of capital, everywhere, the American economy would be transformed. The catastrophic effects of the racial wealth gap halted.

However, if you’re a frequent reader of Kauffman stories, you’re probably well aware that only 1% of venture-backed founders are Black. Another thing I’d like you to consider is a 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Studies that found by 2053 the median wealth of Black Americans will fall to zero if trends continue.

It’s hard to fathom when you consider that Greenwood – Black Wall Street – was built less than a generation after slavery, survived a massacre and the complete physical destruction of its residential and business district. Yet, by 2053 Black household wealth could be less than the ashes left behind in 1921. Investing in the future of Black companies is the solution today.

Investors can play a critical role in revitalizing the Black economic ecosystem, similar to that of Black Wall Street, and thereby change the trajectory of the American economy. However, the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” box cannot be checked if banks, investors, and VCs are giving Black founders table scraps or not funding them at all. Founders of Black companies require serious investment, and by serious, I mean equal to that of their white counterparts.

Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times and a descendant of two families that survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Although his publication’s store and newsroom are headquartered in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Frank currently works remotely from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. Frank played a pivotal role in marking the Centennial of the Race Massacre, attending the U.S. Congressional hearings in Washington D.C. with the last living survivors, and planning President Joe Biden’s visit. Frank has been featured on NBC Nightly News, MSNBC with Tiffany Cross, BBC, ABC, BNC, NewsOne, and other major media outlets. His work is featured in TIME Magazine and other publications besides his own. In 2021, Frank was listed as number 44 on The Root 100’s most influential African Americans. In 2017, Frank gave a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa, titled “Finding the Excellence Within”. Lastly, Frank was a speaker at SXSW 2022.

This piece is part of the Foundation’s “Uncommon Voices” series, which features viewpoints from those working hard on issues that reduce racial inequity and support economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.

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