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Watch: Rare Footage of All-Black Towns in 1920s America

Michele Debczak
A group of men at the State Funeral Directors and Embalmers Meeting held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, circa 1900.
A group of men at the State Funeral Directors and Embalmers Meeting held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, circa 1900. / Heritage Images/Getty Images

Many textbooks focus on the hardships Black Americans faced after slavery, including exploitative sharecropping practices, racist Jim Crow laws, and violence at the hands of white supremacists. One part of African American history that gets less attention is the thriving Black communities that appeared in the decades following the Civil War. Thanks to rare footage captured by an amateur filmmaker, we have an intimate look at what life was like in these all-Black towns in the 1920s.

As National Geographic shares in the video description, this film was recorded by Baptist minister and businessman Reverend Solomon Sir Jones a century ago. In the 1920s, Oklahoma was home to roughly 50 Black communities. Black Americans flocked to these neighborhoods to buy land, open businesses, and send their children to school away from discrimination from white Americans.

Residents lived a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, and some became wealthy entrepreneurs. One couple mentioned in the video amassed a fortune from oil within decades of the Emancipation Proclamation. But even in communities of their own, Black Americans weren't always able to escape racial violence. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood—also known as Black Wall Street—was terrorized by a white mob. More than 1200 houses and buildings were burned, and between 50 and 300 people were killed.

Following an effort to suppress the story after it occurred, the Tulsa Race Massacre has received long-overdue attention in recent years. The video below shows a different, more uplifting side of life in Black towns in early-20th century America. After watching the rare footage, you can read more facts about the Tulsa Race Massacre here.