Chicago entrepreneur Keewa Nurullah learned one of her most valued business lessons from her great-grandfather, Simeon Neal Sr., a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
The 1921 Tulsa race massacre
Nurullah’s great-grandfather ran a tailor shop in the Greenwood district of Tulsa — a prosperous African American community that became known as Black Wall Street. But he was forced to abandon his business when an angry mob of White vigilantes burned most of the 35-block neighborhood to the ground on May 31, 1921. An estimated 70 to 300 people died in the attack and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed.
According to accounts from his descendants, one of Neal’s customers snuck Neal, his wife Susan and their two small children, Marjorie and Simeon Neal Jr., out of town by hiding them under bales of hay in the back of a wagon. The family managed to escape the carnage.
“If one thing had changed, if he hadn’t connected with that customer or that customer had gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t be here,” Nurullah told CNN Business.
Nearly a century after the massacre, Nurullah is honoring her great-grandfather’s entrepreneurial legacy by running her own business, Kido, a multicultural children’s apparel, book and toy store on the South Side of Chicago.
She sometimes reflects on how her great-grandfather’s relationship with a customer saved the lives of her family members.
“When people come in the shop and I stir up those conversations, it’s not just purely transactional for me,” Nurullah said. “You never know how people will end up being instrumental in your life.”
A legacy is born
After fleeing Tulsa in 1921, the Neal family eventually settled in Chicago. That’s where Neal reopened his tailor shop and his wife would give birth to four more children: Harold, Juanita, James and Susan.
Simeon Neal Jr. spent his childhood learning his father’s trade before serving as a tailor in the US Army during World War II. He later opened his own shop in Chicago, where he would design and make men’s suits just like his father.
He married Rosa Lee Campbell in 1948 after returning from the war. The couple later had two children, Wallace and Nurullah’s mother, Velma, who eventually changed her name to Shanta Nurullah.
Keewa Nurullah and her mother say most of what they know about the Tulsa riots came from the stories Neal Jr. and his siblings would share on rare occasions.
“Everybody in the family has a slightly different version based on who they heard it from,” Shanta Nurullah recalled. “Every time the story is told, it’s told a little differently and they remember different parts of it.”
Tulsa historian Scott Ellsworth, author of “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice,” said somewhere between 100 and 200 businesses were operating in the Greenwood district prior to the massacre, but photos and written records of the event are hard to come by today.
“How many old letters do you have from your great-grandmother in your family?,” asked Ellsworth, who is helping lead an effort to uncover the unmarked graves of massacre victims. “There’s obviously newspaper accounts. They’re all available. A lot of the records were all destroyed.”
Keewa Nurullah's family tree: One family's Tulsa race massacre survival story
CNN found Neal Sr.’s tailoring business listed on the Greenwood Cultural Center’s Black Wall Street Memorial, which was built in 1996. The late author Mary E. Jones Parrish also lists his business in “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” her 1923 eyewitness account of the massacre.
In the early 2000s, Neal Jr., who was an infant at the time of the massacre, began receiving recognition as a survivor of the Tulsa riots, according to his family. He died in 2002.
“Every year, he would get this flimsy little certificate in the mail for being one of the last Tulsa survivors,” Nurullah recalled. “Before he passed, he was living history. He just would get this flimsy little paper certificate in the mail saying, ‘Yay, you’re still here.’”
The lack of widespread acknowledgment of the Tulsa race massacre has been a frustrating reality for the Nurullah family up until recently. In 2019, the fictional HBO series “The Watchmen” opened with a dramatic depiction of the Tulsa massacre. In a pivotal early scene, a Black family is shown being smuggled out of the city while hiding in the back of a wagon.
It hit close to home. Nurullah said she wept as she watched the scene for the first time and had the same reaction when the massacre was depicted again in “Lovecraft Country” a year later.
“I couldn’t finish it,” she recalled. “I felt kind of a visceral personal reaction to seeing that on the screen. … I don’t think I have ever felt so connected to or affected by any piece of art like that before.”
Nurullah embarked on her own entrepreneurial mission in 2016, when she started selling customized multicultural kids clothing online. It was not long after the birth of her eldest child, Feraz Freitag.
“I was kind of shopping for [Feraz] and just kept seeing the gaps in representation for kids and babies, especially little Black boys,” she said. “I had a couple ideas for some onesies. I got them printed out and went to see if anyone on my network liked what I was doing and went from there.”
After a couple years, Nurullah’s business had grown and she was able to save and borrow enough money from family to open her own shop.
Despite having to close her shop for several months due to government restrictions, Nurullah’s business flourished during the pandemic. Parents were purchasing games, puzzles and dolls to keep their children entertained while they were forced to stay home.
Nurullah took out a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help cover the business’ losses during the early months of the shutdown. But she said online sales of her multicultural books and toys were booming most of the year, especially amid the cultural push to support Black businesses that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd.
“We weren’t honestly selling as many before the pandemic and then, once I saw that pattern of what people were looking for, I started ordering more toys and puzzles and that sort of thing,” she said. “Even though we were closed to foot traffic, we were kind of like a little fulfillment center.”
Nurullah said knowing her ancestors have survived worse has given her added confidence and strength to persevere as an entrepreneur, especially during the pandemic.
“I think it definitely pushes me forward and gives me an edge,” she said. “It’s kind of like destiny. I was meant to do this. It’s literally in my blood.”