Ricco Wright has deep roots in Tulsa: His great-grandfather lived about 15 miles east of the Oklahoma city when the race massacre of 1921 occurred in the Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street. The area was a bustling neighborhood for black businesses until white mobs carried out an attack that killed an estimated 300 people, decimated the local infrastructure, and destroyed the once-thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. Wright is part of a group of entrepreneurs working to revive the district to its former glory. In 2018, he opened the Black Wall Street Art Gallery, a gallery and events space aimed at using the arts to build better relationships among Tulsans. This year, he's taking that mission further by running for mayor: Voters will decide between Wright and six other candidates, including the incumbent, Republican G.T. Bynum, on August 25.
Wright, a Democrat, began his campaign shortly before Tulsa made headlines for President Trump's planned campaign rally there on June 19, Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. The event was later moved to the following day, June 20. While doing media interviews about Black Wall Street, a reporter told Wright he would make a great leader. He took the message to heart, resolving to increase his community work and run for office. Since then, he's been outspoken about issues from his opposition to Trump's rally to the plight of his fellow business owners. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Why don't we start off with Juneteenth and Trump's scheduled rally. What has been the response from business owners in Tulsa and Greenwood?
Greenwood does not want Trump here. Friday or Saturday. It's also a real health hazard to have that many people assembled. We're concerned with our safety as well. You have many potential white nationalists coming to Tulsa. The BOK Center, where Trump is holding his rally, is not far from Greenwood.
Friday is Juneteenth and we want to celebrate our freedom. Leave us be. You left us alone for all of these years. Why come now? You don't get the right to see how well we're doing now so you can do some kind of publicity stunt to say that you're going to pay your respects to those who lost their lives during the massacre. You're not going to try to make it seem as if you are concerned about the plight of black people when you've been spewing hate at these rallies. You can't tell me that he's operating in a spirit of unity. My campaign for mayor is all about unity.
Tell me more about your campaign.
I announced I was running for mayor on June 10. This is historic because Tulsa has never had a black mayor. I'm thinking about the position with respect to city-level issues, not just issues that affect black people. Those are important, but this is an entire city. It's not all about the massacre, Black Wall Street, and police reform. There's a lot more, like supporting and protecting small businesses.
How have Tulsa residents responded to the campaign so far?
I've been getting a lot of support, but there are people who look at my hair rather than listening to what I'm saying or asking about my platform. I'm a black man and face the same kind of racist rhetoric that some people don't even realize they utter.
What would be one of the first things you'd want to implement or change if you're elected?
Support for small businesses, because that's what drives our economy. I want to make certain that these small businesses have access to capital and make sure that they can create jobs and maintain their staff. It's important to get beyond that first five-year threshold, which is really a paralysis for a lot of small businesses. How can we make certain that the owners have access to mentoring? How do we make certain that they're in tune with the economy?
The city of Tulsa has been working to boost its entrepreneurial ecosystem, by, for example, working with charities to launch the nonprofit co-working space, 36 Degrees North. What specifically would you implement to make sure that small-business growth would continue?
I'm not so much interested in the privatization of the public sector. I think that could be dangerous. I want to get away from that model. I want to create a culture where philanthropists, big or small, are going to people who are in need and asking, "How can I help?" instead of saying, "Here's the money, I want you to do this." I don't want small-business owners to feel like they have to do what the philanthropist is asking.
You said you wanted to make sure entrepreneurs have access to capital, which is one of the biggest hurdles for Tulsa's small-business owners. How would you help them?
I want to work closely with the banks to create programs for startups in phases. It would be three phases, and we work toward making certain that from year zero to year five, these businesses have been put in a position to succeed. In phase one, you provide the initial capital for build-out, inventory, and equipment. Then, phase two would be the ramp-up phase when businesses need operational funding. Then, phase three is making sure they're sustainable.