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West Palm Beach playwright ready to get 'Black Wall Street' performing again

Play documents success of Tulsa's Black community before 1921 massacre
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Posted at 6:57 PM, Jun 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 19:39:58-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One of the nation's most prosperous Black communities was leveled to ashes 100 years ago.

Historians estimate between 100 and 300 residents of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were murdered from May 31 to June 1, 1921.

The community and people's lives destroyed by a white mob at a time in America's history when the Ku Klux Klan opposed reconstruction, Black advancement and immigration.

The story of "Black Wall Street" may be more in the news now, but for Hallie Balbuena, a West Palm Beach playwright, the story grabbed her attention four years ago.

In fact, it led her to draft a play.

Balbuena said her quest started in December 2016 when she went to her public library looking for books on "Black Wall Street" and found nothing.

Hallie Balbuena, writer of the play 'Black Wall Street'
Hallie Balbuena lays what spurred her to write a play on the Tulsa race massacre.

"To my amazement, there was nothing about the Greenwood community -- not one book, article. As a matter of fact, the librarian I was speaking to had never heard of it," Balbuena said. "But it piqued my interest. I actually had to order books through the library to begin my research."

It started a fire inside her, and within two months her play "Black Wall Street" was written.

"I need our young people to know if it was done once, it can be done again," Balbuena said. "Greenwood was the blueprint -- a bustling self-sustained town."

The district had its own bank, hospitals, hotel, law firms, grocery stores, socialites and millionaires. Balbuena's research reveals they had building Black wealth down to a science.

"Their dollar stayed in their community. If they needed a dress, they went to their Black tailor to make it. If they needed their car repaired, they went to their Black mechanic to do it," Balbuena said.

The phrase "community" was so valued that if a Greenwood resident's home burned down, it was rebuilt.

Cora Studstill-Perry of Greater Antioch Missionary Baptist Church trustee board chairperson
Cora Studstill-Perry explains the importance of the play "Black Wall Street."

"In less than two weeks," she said.

It was a nice blueprint for one group, but history also reveals resentment from less prosperous whites, and the KKK grew.

"There was jealousy brewing," Balbuena said.

But instead of focusing on the destruction, her play "Black Wall Street" focuses on the district's success.

"I didn't want to do a documentary," she said. "My motto is, 'I aspire to inspire before I expire.'"

Performed first in 2017, "Black Wall Street" goes beyond the arrest of shoeshiner Dick Rowland, who tripped getting out of an elevator and grabbed the arm of a white elevator operator to catch his balance. He was charged and arrested with assault.

On May 31, while Rowland was in jail, a white mob surrounded it and was later met by approximately 75 black men who showed up to defend Rowland's honor. Shots were fired and 12 people were killed -- 10 white and two Black. What followed was the destruction of Greenwood by air and by ground.

"This was a time when white America realized Black America was gaining wealth, and the only way to stop it was to destroy it," Balbuena said.

"Black Wall Street" has a cast of 40 people that's traveled to Tampa and other parts of Florida sharing the story of Greenwood's people -- the millionaires, the founders and the socialites who only bought their clothes in Paris.

The play has also traveled to civic organizations and churches.

"This is our history. If it's not shared, and if it's not told, it never happened," said Cora Studstill-Perry, Greater Antioch Missionary Baptist Church trustee board chairperson.

"An education is something that no one can take from you, so the more I put in, the better I make me," Balbuena added.

Balbuena's company Creative Touches Productions, LLC wants to get "Black Wall Street" back on the road now that COVID-19 restrictions have decreased. She also wants to open to performances on request.

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