Black Wall Street on film: A story of revival and renewal

The Reverend Harold Mose Anderson was always fascinated by the movies. Anderson saved his money and bought a home movie camera from a catalog. Once he had it, he was seldom without it as he wandered the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Much like a seasoned reporter, wherever he went, he always took time to load up the camera and check his film and equipment. He never knew when he might get a good shot of his community in action. The resulting motion picture, Reverend Harold Anderson's Black Wall Street Film, captured from 1948 through 1952, has been preserved and made available for use by the National Museum of American History's Archives Center.

Black and white still from a movie. A marching band is playing their instruments in formation, marching along. They have fancy hats.

Anderson's community was the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, an area of such significance that it is featured in the Power of Place exhibition of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Often referred to as "Little Africa" in the early years of the 20th century, it later became popularly known as "Black Wall Street." At a time when segregation limited African American housing options and prevented black customers from patronizing businesses that catered to white customers only, it had one of the largest concentrations of black-owned businesses in the country. Black Wall Street was a vibrant African American neighborhood with a thriving middle class and well-established institutions such as schools, churches, and civic associations.

Black and white photo of an African American man. He wears a suit and has a friendly smile on his face. His hair is short.

Black and white still from a film. It shows a drug store sign for William's Drug co. Pay-Less Store.

However, in 1921 Black Wall Street was the scene of a massive race riot during which hundreds of African American residents were killed and the neighborhood was burned to the ground. Born in 1922, Harold Anderson grew up hearing the stories and watching the neighborhood's rebirth. He was both a witness to and participant in the rebuilding and revival of the community. And, he documented the renewal with his 16mm motion picture camera.

Still from a black and white movie. Movie poster in background. A young, nicely dressed African American woman and man stand together, smiling.

Anderson himself played a major role in the neighborhood's resurgence. A successful businessman, Anderson managed and then owned two neighborhood movie theaters, a skating rink, a bowling alley, and a shopping strip, among other enterprises. He also brought the Golden Gloves boxing tournament to the area, making it accessible to African American fans. Anderson was committed to the belief that, like in other majority African American communities during the Jim Crow era, it was critical that Black Wall Street sustain independent African American businesses to ensure resident dollars would stay in the community and guarantee its future.

Film still. Gentleman in a suit smoking a cigarette outside store. He is wearing glasses.

Almost lost in a devastating house fire, Anderson's film recognizes the efforts and successes of the community. With his camera he showed that by the 1940s Black Wall Street once again was home to active African American-owned businesses. He made a special effort to document the neighborhood’s barber shops, groceries, taxi companies, jewelers, and other enterprises. He also captured its citizens in church, at school, participating in parades, and on the streets of the area. The film includes footage of Richard and Pat Nixon as they campaigned in Black Wall Street, the first time a vice presidential candidate visited the African American neighborhood. As a historic document the film provides a record of a significant time and place in African American history. It allows the viewer to "feel" the vibrancy of a community that triumphed over tragedy.


This is a sample of the film. You can also view the sample on Vimeo.

Patricia Sanders donated the film to the Archives Center in 2010. The Archives Center was able to secure grant funding to preserve the 16mm black-and-white reversal film. As a result, a new negative and print, as well as digital copies, ensure that the film can be studied and enjoyed far into the future.

For more information about the film, contact archivescenter@si.edu.

Wendy Shay is an audiovisual archivist at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History.