Lessons from entrepreneurship in Tulsa’s Greenwood District -

Lessons from entrepreneurship in Tulsa’s Greenwood District

By: Dale G. Caldwell and Amanda Chastang

“Give a person a fish and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” This adage provides valuable insight into ways we can implement programs to eliminate urban poverty. Unfortunately, many previous attempts to address this issue have not seen long-term success because organizations mainly focused on “giving people fish” instead of supporting them in developing their own “fishing businesses.” We, as a nation, have a responsibility to learn from our past and refocus initiatives to build upon entrepreneurial strength and highlight the resilient aptitude of underrepresented and economically challenged communities.

The crisis at hand

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally impacted communities of color and small family-owned businesses. As a result, unemployment has reached record highs, especially in many Black communities and communities of color.

Estimates suggest that 40% of Black businesses in urban communities will or have already closed due to the government shutdown during the pandemic. Federal, state and local governments are faced with the momentous challenge of identifying strategies on how to increase widespread employment and prosperity in communities devastated by low employment.

Black Wall Street: History and inspiration

Insight into how to address this challenge and increase prosperity and employment opportunities can be found in one of the greatest accomplishments within the Black community. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation.

Black and white photo of the inside of a cafe with tables and chairs and customers
Red Wing Cafe, Greenwood (1920) (Image courtesy of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, TU)

Black communities survived this discriminatory ruling by developing their own towns and districts throughout the U.S. In some cases, this led to Black economic wealth due to prosperous Black-owned businesses within those communities. Black-majority neighborhoods fought against discrimination by developing healthy communities rooted in inventions and entrepreneurship. One of these successful Black communities was the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This robust community was so economically successful that it was named “Black Wall Street.”

Unfortunately, many local whites and town officials became jealous of the economic success of this community, and on May 31 through June 1, 1921, an angry white mob invaded and bombed Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. Tragically, more than 300 people were killed and over 200 businesses destroyed during the Tulsa Race Massacre simply because Black families in the Greenwood District had created their own thriving and prosperous community out of entrepreneurial success.

One positive lesson we can learn from this tragic illustration of racism is that Black communities, if given the opportunity to develop entrepreneurial businesses, can flourish and generate wealth for local and surrounding communities. This characterization is often true for many communities representing various races and backgrounds.

Supporting entrepreneurship

It is essential for administrations and government officials to prioritize supporting entrepreneurship endeavors in underrepresented communities. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic-related closings of small businesses has reduced tax revenue, which, in turn, limits the money governments have to support the growth of small businesses. The support of businesses, especially within underrepresented communities, must therefore come from stakeholders, individuals, venture capitalists and large corporations.

green and black logo with the words Black Excellence, Education, Employment, EntrepreneurshipThe most effective way to generate private sector monies to support the growth of small businesses is to establish “entrepreneur zones.” With this initiative, investors would receive significant tax credits for investing in businesses in underrepresented neighborhoods located in areas currently designated as “opportunity zones.”

The entrepreneur zone initiative will not only result in millions of private sector dollars invested in businesses in these communities but will also generate thousands of jobs and widespread economic prosperity. Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, was an excellent example of an entrepreneur zone. The creation of entrepreneur zones will not only accelerate post-pandemic economic growth and job creation, it will also lead to a national focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

a man smiling and wearing glasses, an open-collar pink shirt and a dark-colored blazerDale G. Caldwell is a professor and the executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is focused on researching, supporting and promoting entrepreneurship in the United States. He received a BA in economics from Princeton University, an MBA in finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in education administration from Seton Hall University.




a woman smiling and wearing a burgundy blouse and a white cardiganAmanda Chastang (MA ’18) is the diversity officer at The University of Tulsa. Having a passion for equity, social justice and diversity, Amanda received a bachelor’s degree in conflict studies with a focus on race, ethnicity and culture conflict and gender conflict from DePauw University. She then continued her journey in higher education at TU by earning an MA in history with a concentration on the intersections of race, women and gender. During her time as a graduate student working in the Office of Diversity and Engagement (today, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), Amanda became fluent in diversity-related policies and best practices by assisting in the development of the university’s Diversity Action Plan. After graduation, Amanda became the diversity and engagement fellow and later the director of multicultural affairs. Since then, Amanda has continued working at the university in an effort to revitalize and implement diverse initiatives that reflect our ever-changing environment. As a Tulsa native, Amanda is passionate about and committed to using her platform to promote inclusivity, diversity and equality within TU, Tulsa and communities throughout the United States.