By Amethyst Davis
Black News & Views
Before Kayla Comrie orders a two-piece meal from Wanda J’s, a soul food staple along North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District, she makes sure to take care of some serious business to avoid upsetting the night: speaking with elders sitting near the front entrance.
If you don’t, she said, your food will get cold before you get home. That’s where all the Black elders of Tulsa hang out, Comrie remarked.
The 31-year-old healthcare worker moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in February 2020, weeks before the shutdowns began. The in-fighting and segregation of the Black community in Coral Springs, Florida, which she deemed “Jumanji in real life” because of its alligators and snakes, prompted her to leave.
“I want to be part of a community that actually cares about Sankofa, reaching back and providing for the next generation — or if not the next generation, helping out a person who looks like you.”
Manners and an eagerness to hold a conversation after greeting someone are things the native New Englander never would have gotten in Florida, she said.
Although the pandemic has strained some relationships, Black Tulsans are finding new ways to stay connected to the past and present while charting Black futures.
Browsing a website called Travel Noire, Comrie read a story about a program that would pay her to move to Tulsa, allowing her to possibly achieve her dream of becoming a Black homeowner sooner than she could in Florida.
The Tulsa Remote program is comparable to peer relocation programs, offering a $10,000 cash incentive and housing assistance, but it also places unique emphasis on community-building.
Tulsa Remoters have access to a co-working space downtown called 36 Degrees North. It’s a state of the art facility which remote workers can use if they’d like and hobnob in Tulsa’s tech scene.
“We know that oftentimes that $10,000 and a network of people can be a motivating factor for folks to come make Tulsa home — and specifically homeownership is something that we’re consistently tracking,” said Justin Harlen, Chief Operating Officer of Tulsa Remote.
Since joining the team, Harlen recognizes that scalability and growth will be crucial in the months and years ahead due to a surge in applications, which have risen 300% since the pandemic began.
The team plans to recruit 750 additional members in 2021.
To be eligible for Tulsa Remote, you must be at least 18 years old, already employed, doing remote work or holding employment that can transition into remote work, for which you must provide a confirmation letter, and be able to live in Tulsa for 12 consecutive months.
As Comrie was doing her research into Tulsa during the application process, its rich history shocked her. She knew there was a Black Wall Street. She didn’t know it was in Tulsa. She assumed the Great Depression caused its demise.
“They definitely didn’t teach us about Black Wall Street in grade school,” she remarked, chiding a lack of robust Black history education outside of the usual civil rights movement studies. “But then they definitely didn’t teach us that it was all shattered because of a race massacre with a white mob.”
Comrie knew she needed to be very intentional about how she invested her time, thinking of ways to contribute and pour more into Tulsa.
“How can I give back to this community? How can I help be part of the rebuilding? How can I contribute to the legacy of the upcoming centennial?” she wondered.
One way to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre: circulate the Black dollar in small businesses in the city, like Wanda J’s.
Wanda J. Armstrong is owner of Tulsa favorites Evelyn’s Soul Food and Wanda J’s Soul Food. The Wanda J’s North Greenwood Avenue location that runs through the heart of what once was Black Wall Street has been in operation since 1974.
Armstrong’s granddaughters run the store now, appropriately dubbed “Wanda J’s Next Generation,” where its menu with made-to-order soul food favorites like fried chicken and hot water cornbread attract eaters far and wide.
Armstrong’s son Ty Walker, 54, also helps run ‘Next Generation,” and says the business is truly a family affair — blood-related or not.
It’s no surprise that Comrie finds connection with the restaurant’s elders Walker said, because “that’s the motto. If you make a friend first, then you’ll have a customer for life.”
“Money is never prejudiced.” A man with $1 to his name gets the same respect as a man with $1 million, Walker said.
While Wanda J’s initially lost about 45% of its business due to shutdowns, Walker said the restaurant didn’t rely upon the Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business Administration-backed loan to help business owners pay employees in the face of declining revenue.
After nearly 50 years in operation, the Armstrong family has learned that “you have lean times and fat times,” Walker said. Without massive debt on its back, other businesses shuttered for good while granddaughter Glory Walker-Wells used the shutdown to remodel the interior, posting a video of the renovations on the company’s Facebook page.
Evelyn’s near Tulsa International Airport lost some business but familial ties allowed aunts, nephews, and cousins to continue working.
Wanda J’s was recently one of 25 restaurants announced as part of the “Backing Historic Small Restaurants” program. The restaurant received a $40, 000 grant and technological assistance as part of the program, a collaboration between American Express and the National Historic Preservation.
The family already used $10, 000 to remodel the interior “at their discretion,” Walker said, however, because the building is historic, they’re limited to what renovations they could make to the exterior due to land preservation laws.
They’re working with historical foundations at the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce to determine what additional types of renovations could be made, Walker said.
Comrie recognized the tension in newcomer residents having access to an array of investments in the face of the collapse of a major economic engine like Black Wall Street.
Harlen also acknowledges the tension, but he’s proud that Tulsa Remoters are becoming active members of the community. Some organized a Black Wall Street Black Bike Race and volunteered in city and statewide events to commemorate the centennial.
“There’s the Tulsa Remote experience, and then there’s the Tulsa experience,” Comrie said.
Many of the Tulsa Remoters, like herself, are transplants, meaning they’re learning about the city through that lens. She’s strategic to build relationships with Tulsa natives who have always stayed, those who have left and returned, and the descendants of those killed in the massacre.
She doesn’t want only the Tulsan or Tulsan remote experience — she wants both, she added.
Tulsa’s tech sector is growing, young people are moving in, and some are even returning, like Aaron Bolzle. The Tulsa native served as the Executive Director for 3 years and was charged with spearheading the program’s growth and development.
A boomeranger, or someone who leaves home for college, works elsewhere, and returns home, Bolzle returned home for one reason: to build on current efforts to make Tulsa a booming city, and that required being a change agent.
According to Bolzle, you do that by taking those yearning for a greater sense of place, “integrate them into the current ecosystem,” and build bridges with community leaders — all from the very beginning.
‘Next Generation’ elders told Comrie there were once at least 50 Black towns across Oklahoma, more communities filled with Black owned businesses.
As the state has reopened, Comrie’s organized a fleet of safe, in-person events, including purchasing a caravan to help Black Tulsa Remoters meander across Tulsa and discover those Black towns the elders spoke of.
It’s this sense of love and togetherness that Walker believes will help rebuild Black Wall Street and a stronger Black America.
“The history of Black Wall Street is what’s contributing to the community still sticking together,” she said, “so the businesses that remain can thrive and more can flourish,” Comrie said.
She firmly believes that her experience without the Tulsa Remote program would look drastically different had she moved to Tulsa absent the connections.
“I probably would not have any of the insight about Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the history of Black Oklahoma at this point and time.”
Amethyst J. Davis is an NABJ Media Network Casey Fellow covering health and COVID-19. She is a proud daughter of Cook County. You can follow her on Twitter @APurple_Reign.
This report was made possible with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.