TULSA, Okla. — Ru Helms has long dreamed of being the CEO of his own company.
“I’ve been wanting to be a CEO of my own company since I was 6,” he said.
A month before he graduated high school last year, Helms, 20, launched his first clothing brand — Only Tha9ine Klothing — which represents him and his 15 siblings. He’ll launch his second brand later this year.
Growing up in the Greenwood District, Helms said he was able to leverage the connections his father had built working as a barber at a small, locally owned shop. He found his entrepreneurship dream had plenty of support from local residents and the connections he has forged over the years.
On Saturday, he had a small booth set up outside the same barber shop where his father works. Helms, a clothing designer, was selling T-shirts he created with a picture of a gorilla, symbolizing his and his siblings' strength.
He was among dozens of Black entrepreneurs showing off their wares Saturday during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre centennial commemoration. The three-day festival drew thousands of people to the streets of north Tulsa on Saturday. The day featured a parade, a festival and a march by armed Black activists. The activists had hoped for about 1,000 participants, but fewer than 200 attended the peaceful march.
A century ago, the Greenwood District was a thriving, affluent community, filled with Black entrepreneurs.
But a white mob fueled by hate and envy murdered, looted and burned the district to the ground on May 31, 1921. Historians estimate as many as 300 people, mostly Black, were killed.
In recent decades, economic difficulties have continued to be a trend in much of north Tulsa, including Greenwood, said Chad Wilkerson, vice president and economist at the Oklahoma City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in a statement.
He said unemployment in Greenwood and in the broader north Tulsa area, both which are over 75% Black, was over twice as high as the greater Tulsa area, the state of Oklahoma and the United States.
Real per capita personal income in north Tulsa was about $17,500 from 2015 to 2019 — about half of the national average, 55% of the Tulsa metro average and 60% of Oklahoma’s average, he said.
Still, Dell Gines, senior community affairs adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Omaha branch, said many Tulsans are attempting to “rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit and economic vibrancy of Black Wall Street.”
Among those is Donva Adkism, 30, of Tulsa, who has long dreamed of being his own boss by running a business that provides both flexibility and income.
About a year ago, Adkism opened GMG Vending, a vending machine and concession stand company.
Now he owns 13 vending machines, which are operational across the region, including in Tulsa, Muskogee and Owasso.
On Saturday, he was selling his goods at the festival in a bid to support the community and to bring more awareness to his brand.
The Greenwood District has a lot of entrepreneurs who run businesses out of their homes, said Shane Cameron, events director for the Black Wall Street Alliance, which works with and provides support to minority-owned businesses in the area.
“This area, Greenwood area, there are tons of people with dreams that just want to grow them that don’t necessarily know how,” he said.
When they reached out to local business owners about setting up booths, 59 jumped at the chance, he said.
“Everybody’s got a dream,” he said.
Debate, though, continues over what reparations, if any, survivors and descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre are due to compensate them for the pain and economic damages suffered the hands of the white mob.
On Sunday, National Black Power Convention organizers, who organized the armed march, plan to hold an eight-hour-long reparations rally near Oklahoma State University-Tulsa.
Three massacre survivors, who range in age from 100 to 107, also recently testified before Congress, also calling for reparations and justice.
A disagreement over how to spend money raised for the centennial has also fueled frustrations and spilled into the public spotlight.
The dispute reportedly led to the cancellation of the signature event — the "Remember and Rise" observance. The event was to feature prominent figures including performer John Legend and voting rights activist and former politician Stacey Abrams. Up to 6,000 people were expected to attend the nationally televised event.
In a letter obtained by The Oklahoman, an attorney for the survivors and descendants among other things demanded the high-profile Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission provide $1 million per survivor by May 31 and another $50 million pledge to a survivor and descendant fund.
The letter, from attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, also called for a third of all revenue generated by the new Greenwood Rising history center to be given directly to survivors and descendants.
The letter also demanded a public apology from commission chairman Kevin Matthews for comments he made about three salaries the survivors were set to receive along with assistance for medical expenses. The attorney said the “proposed gift” was supposed to be confidential, but it is now being used to try to portray the survivors “in a false light” to lessen their credibility and undermine the overall reparations fight. As a result, the lawyer said the survivors would decline the grant.
Matthews was told to issue a public apology and clarification by May 24.
The letter also required the ability to “help shape the program” of the "Rise and Remember" event, and speak on behalf of the survivors and their work.
An attempt to reach the lawyer was unsuccessful. Matthews also couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Saturday evening.