Dozens, if not hundreds of Black Tulsans were killed on the night of May 31 and the morning of June 1, 1921. The true number will likely never be known. Thousands of homes were turned into ashes and rubble. Institutions that once thrived were turned into shot-out husks, with no humanity to fill them again. The message in the mob’s bullets was clear to the former Greenwood residents, scattered like thousands of shards of glass across the northeast part of Oklahoma – try to stand up on your own two feet and see what happens next.
Prior to May 31, 1921, that’s exactly what the community of Greenwood had done – sprout from the soil and rise through the concrete into a self-sustaining “Black Wall Street”. The neighborhood of 11,000 people was more than just the homes and businesses it contained. It was a community that looked out for one another and kept money circulating inside its own ecosystem, which lifted the standard of living for every resident.
“It was a successful community,” said Gibbs II’s wife Tracy. “When we talk about the destruction of Black Wall Street, we talk about the destruction of knowledge, the destruction of people being able to learn from one another and people being able to thrive and build with one another.”
Ernestine’s family returned to Tulsa days after the massacre but found no trace of their home or possessions. Their only option was to live in the quarters of a white family who allowed them to stay while Ernestine’s mother worked as their housekeeper. Despite the precarity foisted upon her at 17 years old, Ernestine finished her education at Booker T. Washington High School, earned a teaching degree and then came back to her alma mater to teach.
After meeting Leroy II’s grandfather, also named Leroy, Ernestine settled into family life, retired from teaching and used her retirement funds to help start a swath of family businesses that she and Leroy ran together. First it was crossing the county line to buy chickens, then bringing them back to Tulsa to sell to residents. Then came a grocery store, a laundromat, a restaurant, a hardware store and even a juke joint. Just decades after a violent mob signaled that any attempt at Black excellence would be ruthlessly punished, Ernestine and Leroy Gibbs built up a business empire with faith and fearlessness.
“It was more than just the loss of everything they had,” said Gibbs II. “There was a breakdown of the people to trust, and it even probably instilled a sense of fear, of ‘if we try to do this, what’s going to happen is they’re going to take it away from us again’. So, for my grandparents to just had that tenacity, even to this day, when I think about it sometimes it just amazes me what they were able to accomplish.”