Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Photograph by Sue Ogrocki / AP / Shutterstock
The Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of Tulsa’s smallest congregations, attracting only about seventy-five members on a good Sunday. The three-story, red brick building, which appears stately from a distance, reveals its age on closer inspection. The white paint on its windowsills is chipped nearly bare, the plaster walls that line its main hall are cracked, and its clouded stained-glass windows rattle when a semi trundles across the interstate overpass next door. This is not a typical place of respite for billionaires. But Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who will be on the ballot for the first time in Oklahoma and thirteen other states on Tuesday, stood in the Vernon pulpit on the last Sunday in January and spoke about the economic legacy of racism.
Campaigning the day before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Bloomberg had chosen a potent symbol of black history. Vernon AME’s neighborhood, the Greenwood district, was a thriving enclave of black-owned businesses in the early twentieth century that came to be known as Black Wall Street. In 1921 it was burned down in a brutal act of terrorist violence by members of Tulsa’s white community, after a teen-age black shoe shiner was arrested for allegedly assaulting a white woman in the elevator she operated. Thousands of assailants, armed with kerosene, rifles, and even a machine gun, systematically burned and looted the homes and businesses of Greenwood. As many as three hundred people were killed. The community was rebuilt, but many families never recovered their previous wealth. The basement of the Vernon church, built in 1919, was one of the only structures from before the inferno left intact.
The Tulsa race massacre has long been left out of American-history books and accounts of the so-called Roaring Twenties, but the upcoming centennial of the attack has brought Greenwood national attention—and political utility. To signal their commitment to issues such as voting rights and social equality, Presidential hopefuls have long visited sanctuaries that served as nerve centers of the civil-rights movement, such as Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama, or Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Now they are adding Vernon to their list of campaign stops, to show that they understand how systemic racism over the course of centuries has impacted black people financially. Last year, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren all came to Vernon AME. “For candidates who have any type of urban or inner-city policy, it just makes sense for them to come to the most prosperous place on record for black people in the country,” Robert Turner, Vernon’s 37-year-old pastor, told me. “That was Tulsa, Greenwood, 1921.”
A few hours after the January church service, Bloomberg delivered a speech in the sunlit atrium of the Greenwood Cultural Center, a community event space that doubles as a memorial to massacre victims. There, he announced a series of economic programs for African-Americans that he called the “Greenwood Initiative.” The plan involves helping a million African-Americans become homeowners, doubling the number of black-owned small businesses, and investing seventy billion dollars in a hundred low-income communities. Bloomberg cast the agenda as part of his growing realization of his own privilege and the additional obstacles black people have long faced in establishing intergenerational wealth. He coined the initiative’s name himself, according to his staffers. “The challenge of African-American wealth creation today is inextricably linked to the racial inequalities of the past, and I’m determined to make breaking that link a centerpiece of my Presidency,” Bloomberg said as he stood in front of a large American flag.
The speech impressed the Reverend Turner, Vernon’s pastor, who lived a past life as a campaign staffer in Alabama state politics and has now rubbed shoulders with many national politicians. “I don’t give endorsements to candidates, but I really love his plan,” he told me over breakfast recently, donning a black-and-gold Black Wall Street hoodie. “His plan is the first in my adult life of economic development specifically for black people, and tying it to a historical issue like Jim Crow or redlining or racism.”
All of the major Democratic candidates have plans that in some way address racial economic injustice. Elizabeth Warren wants to issue seven billion dollars in grants to minority-owned businesses. Pete Buttigieg, among other incentives, ups the figure to ten billion for people from underrepresented backgrounds, but in a more complex arrangement in which the government would “co-invest” with private firms. Bernie Sanders’s tax plan to reduce income inequality and forgive student debt is supposed to lift all boats.
But Bloomberg has marketed his plan the most aggressively. Unbeknownst to attendees, his Greenwood visit and speech were turned into a national campaign ad that has aired more than twenty-three hundred times since mid-February. Bloomberg’s campaign sent mailers to voters in Super Tuesday states touting the Greenwood Initiative, including black-and-white photos of Black Wall Street at the peak of its success. He launched a “Mike for Black America” get-out-the-vote campaign alongside a dozen black mayors, in Houston.
Many of Tulsa’s black leaders say they are honored to have their community’s story brought to more Americans by Presidential candidates. Some black Oklahomans say that Bloomberg’s full-court press has proved to them that the former mayor has the means to beat Donald Trump. “He’s got the finances that we need, that he’s willing to give, to win this election,” said Freda Lang, a sixty-two-year-old Oklahoma City resident, who plans to work at a phone bank for Bloomberg before Tuesday’s primary. “That’s very important to me, that we have the money to defeat this current President.”
For some, though, the rollout has been almost too efficient. “It’s too strategic to be authentic,” said Ricco Wright, who lived in New York for a decade while Bloomberg was mayor and is the curator of the Black Wall Street Gallery on Greenwood Avenue. “You want us to support your candidacy. But how do we know that you’re genuine?”
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Tulsa is a city where the government’s failure to do right by its black citizens has played out in devastating fashion, again and again. After the massacre, dozens of black residents filed lawsuits against the city, arguing that officials had failed to protect them. Instead, police deputized some of the white attackers who had reduced Greenwood to rubble and placed black survivors in internment camps downtown. Local judges threw out the cases. Decades later, as Greenwood slid into a second, slower decline, in the nineteen-sixties, the city seized large tracts of land under the banner of urban renewal and built the interstate that now roars next to Vernon, splintering a once thriving community. In the early two-thousands, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case seeking reparations for survivors as many of them were approaching death.
Even for residents galvanized by Bloomberg’s plan, there is a wariness born of experience. “Here’s the thing black Tulsans have been a victim of: For the last six decades, there’s been proposal after proposal to make Greenwood great again,” Jim Goodwin, the 80-year-old attorney and publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, the state’s longest-running black newspaper, told me. “From Model Cities to community block-grant funds, you name it. . . . They make these promises, they engage the citizenry, but we suffer from what I call institutional amnesia. From one Administration to the next, there seems to be no recollection of the promises made in the past.” Goodwin said that if he could be sure Bloomberg’s Greenwood Initiative would be implemented, he would definitely vote for the former New York mayor. For now, he’s still evaluating candidates.
Greenwood is currently undergoing another bout of rapid change, a mix of community-focussed black businesses, in the vein of the neighborhood’s roots, and sprawling mega-developments by national chains and powerful white real-estate developers in Oklahoma. At the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge, a new black-owned coffee shop in the heart of the district, patrons mulled Bloomberg’s authenticity days before the primary. Although some viewed his wealth as an asset in the battle against Trump—Bloomberg has a net worth of sixty-four billion dollars and has self-funded a five-hundred-million-dollar political campaign—it gave pause to Brooke Chase, a 24-year-old co-manager of the shop. “It’s just like, ‘How much more power do you want?’ ” she wondered, reclining on a brown leather couch. “Just because you can run a business and make all this money, what makes you think you can run a country? We have a billionaire in the office, and we see how that’s going.” Chase said that she plans to vote for Bernie Sanders.
Charity Marcus, a political consultant, who runs a P.R. agency and a business association called Black Women Business Owners of America, talked with Bloomberg during his Tulsa trip in a private meeting for black entrepreneurs and community leaders. She asked how black business owners could secure more government contracting work in a state that banned affirmative action in 2012. Marcus said she found Bloomberg’s response, in which he encouraged entrepreneurs to focus on corporate contracts rather than government ones, vague and unsatisfying. “There was no thought to even considering making the government contracting process more inclusive and diverse,” Marcus, a registered Republican who has voted for Democrats in the past, told me. “That was a red flag for me.” (In his speech in Tulsa, Bloomberg had said he would work to double the value of federal contracts going to minority-owned businesses).
Another young Oklahoma voter, the twenty-one-year-old Aleah LaForce, said she grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where both her parents served twenty years in the New York Police Department. Her mother and father worked the streets in the years when Bloomberg drastically increased the city’s stop-and-frisk program, forcing thousands of young people of color into confrontations with police. “It was horrible,” recalled LaForce, who favors Elizabeth Warren. “My mom said that her everyday life became more violent. . . . It increased a lot of fear and turmoil on both sides.”
Last fall, Bloomberg began apologizing for stop-and-frisk shortly before launching his Presidential campaign and has continued to do so in recent months. He personally apologized to Turner when they met privately before the church service, the Tulsa pastor told me. For LaForce, though, the timing is suspect. “Why weren’t these things you took the steps to reconcile before you were in this national spotlight and running for the highest office in the nation?” she asked. “It doesn’t seem genuine to me.”
Other African-American voters said they were satisfied with Bloomberg’s apology and wanted to move forward. “In my house, you can tell my priorities by where I put my money,” said Kevin Matthews, a state senator, who represents Greenwood. Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies donated a million dollars to a Tulsa public-arts program that will fund works tied to the history of Black Wall Street. Matthews cited the funds as evidence of the candidate’s commitment to the community. The state senator endorsed Bloomberg in February. “He had some bad policies in the past, but he’s been a great philanthropist for issues such as what we’re doing on Greenwood,” Matthews said. “I don’t know how a person can atone more than what they are willing to invest their time and money in.”
It’s become impossible for many voters to separate Bloomberg from his billions. His wealth is an asset in the fight against Trump—or an albatross that makes him no better than his would-be rival. Both perspectives are alive and well on Black Wall Street, where money has always been aspirational; but loyalty was the priceless currency that kept the neighborhood intact after the mass killings a century ago. By tying such important history to his Presidential marketing, Bloomberg now also owes Greenwood a certain kind of debt. “If he gets elected and he doesn’t do what he says he’s gonna do,” Turner told me, “guess who’s gonna be coming for him?”
This post has been updated to include a fuller description of Charity Marcus’s comments.
Victor Luckerson is a journalist in Tulsa who is writing a book about the city’s Greenwood district, and a newsletter about neglected Black history called Run it Back.