Zebedayo Masongo L ’23 and Grnwood

headshot of a man in a blue dress shirt

The story of creating an oasis in a society with racism engrained into its foundations begins in a small district Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the turn of the 19th century. It is the story of the Greenwood district, a legacy that lives on in the modern rebirth Grnwood, founded by Zebedayo Masongo L’23.

After emancipation, Black communities struggled to find a place for themselves in a society that did not welcome them. After discovering no such spaces in American communities, they decided to create one. Developers bought up property in a district in Tulsa called Greenwood and envisioned it as a budding city for Black Americans. As Black communities flocked to this district, it became a vibrant community of professionals, dreamers, artists – a dazzling assortment of Black people from all socioeconomic statuses.

This rich community was not viewed positively by all. In 1921 roots of deep racisms in the surrounding community took hold as white city residents mobbed the Greenwood district: destroying homes, businesses, and even attacking Black individuals. The district and the rich community named ‘the Black Wall Street’ was then forever lost.

Zebedayo Masongo ’23, a second-year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law, wishes for a modern reinvention of the black community so tragically destroyed. In his personal life, his desires for a Black professional community began as he searched for mentors but could not find any that looked like him. He envisioned an online platform featuring interviews of black professionals, and after conducting a few interviews hatched his idea of an online Black community, called Grnwood in honor of the Tulsa community.

Grnwood, run solely by Masongo featuring various interviews of professionals from a diverse array of fields, has grown to include profile pieces on people from all walks of life. It has expanded to include a team of contributors. From sections of music, style, design, and much more, Grnwood expands and illustrates on the brilliance of Black professional life. A personal focus is at its core: the website is comprised of thoughtful, detailed conversations with black professionals to inspire a sense of personal connection and admiration.

Masongo’s vision of Grnwood is one that not merely comments on current Black culture but acts as a directing force for the growth of art and thought. “I want to be a platform that directs culture – this is a new black renaissance,” said Masongo in reference to Grnwood’s cultural influence.

“Everyone takes their culture very seriously, so the way that we’re dealing with Black culture we address with a certain level of care,” said Masongo. His phrase ‘black renaissance,’ is rooted in the flourishing community of Tulsa, and a hope to recreate that shared inspiration and passion in a digital format.

Masongo’s hopes for Grnwood extend beyond merely a small blog, but he’s working to see it grow into a multinational media platform. He plans to apply his law degree towards a career in growing and managing Grnwood, shaping it into an expansion across continents and diverse forms of media, whether that be film content, podcasts, or editorials.

Much of Masongo’s personal inspiration for Grnwood stems not only from his desire for mentorship, but also lack of cultural role models displayed in his own childhood. In films, books, professional articles, tv series, the prevalence of Black individuals was few and far between- creating a hole where impressionable kids search for inspiration and empowerment.

“When I build the platform, I think about me and my younger self reading magazines and seeing an article about a black professional once every so often, but it’s not really centered around us,” said Masongo. “I think about how cool it would be if there was a magazine to show off all of our elegance and glory.”

For Masongo, that is precisely Grnwood’s role – to show off the elegance and glory of modern black professionals through its intimately interview based media. He hopes that Grnwood will provide a space for Black kids to recognize themselves and their potential through the stories of others.

The inspiration for Grnwood has its roots in a terrible American sin. The destruction of a vibrant community overflowing with thought, creation, and excellence can never be replaced or rebuilt. But its legacy as an oasis for black success and perseverance in the middle of a hostile society lives on through the media platform. “Grnwood is a beautiful example how if we’re not going to be given a seat at the table, we’re going to create our own,” said Masongo.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow; photo supplied