Black History Month: Day 19 – Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

In the early 1900s, Tulsa Oklahoma  was home to a prosperous African district known as Greenwood.  This district was so successful that a dollar would stay within the district an estimated nineteen months before being spend elsewhere.  Home to many successful black businesses, the “colored district” of Tulsa was much more prosperous than its white counterpart across the tracks prior to 1921.  Because of its prosperity, it earned the name “Black Wall Street.”

The Greenwood District of Tulsa

The Greenwood District of Tulsa. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.

J.B. Stradford, a black American entrepreneur and graduate of Oberlin College and Indiana Law School, arrived in Tulsa in 1899.  He was the first black attorney in the Oklahoma territory.  Stradford believed that black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, worked together and supported each other’s businesses.  This philosophy would lead to Greenwood’s prosperity.  He bought large tracts of real estate in the northeastern part of Tulsa, which he had subdivided and sold exclusively to other blacks.  He also built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood, where blacks could enjoy the same amenities of the downtown hotels who that were once exclusively available to whites.  It was said to be the largest black-owned hotel in the United States.

The Gurley Boarding House

The Gurley Boarding House

In 1906, a wealthy black land-owner from Arkansas named O.W. Gurley purchased 40 acres of land for use and purchase by negros.  Gurley had just resigned from a presidential appointment under president Grover Cleveland.  On this land he built a boarding house next to the Frisco Tracks, naming the dusty trail in front of it Greenwood Ave.  The boarding house was available for many African Americans who had fled the oppressive Jim Crow South in search of a new life, jobs, and land of their own.  Gurley set up the “boundaries” of Greenwood, which are still well-known today: Pine Street to the North (Greenwood Ave turns into Garrison St. at Pine St); Archer St and the Frisco tracks to the South; Cincinnati St on the West; and Lansing St on the East.  In addition to his rooming house, Gurley built three two-story buildings and five residences and bought an 80-acre farm in Rogers County.

Founding fathers

Greenwood was supported by experienced pilot and astute businessman Simon Berry, who started the city’s first transportation system.   Adding buses and chartered airplanes, Berry eventually became one of the largest employers of blacks and, after the sale of his business his uniformed drivers became a symbol of racial progress. He continued to make his mark well into the 20th century, even after the Race Riot of 1921 destroyed everything he owned.

Another “founding father” of The Black Wall Street was James Henri Goodwin.   Goodwin moved to Tulsa, encouraged by O.W. Gurley’s promotion of the Oklahoma “Promised Land.”  He started out in Greenwood as a store clerk, but eventually became the youngest entrepreneur in Greenwood with interests in multiple businesses.  He later became the owner of the two oldest continuing business enterprises in North Tulsa, the Jackson Undertaking Co. and The Oklahoma Eagle.

In Tulsa, laws prevented both whites and blacks from living in neighborhoods that were 75% the other race, creating a forced segregation via property.  The Frisco railroad tracks divided the “white” part of town from the Greenwood District, which the white residents dubbed “Little Africa.”  This racial stratification, implemented nearly one hundred years ago, exists to this day in subtle landmarks: South of Archer, Greenwood Avenue does not exist in white neighborhoods.  Interestingly, Oklahoma’s Gap Band was named after the primary streets in the Greenwood district (Greenwood, Archer, and Pine).

Greenwood before the race riot

Photo courtesy Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture, The University of Oklahoma – Tulsa.

Along Greenwood Avenue, expensive houses belonging to doctors, lawyers and business owners sprang up.  Greenwood became home to businesses owned by a thriving black middle class that grew during the oil boom of the 1910s. Theaters, night clubs, churches, grocery stores thrived in the Greenwood District.  Additionally, the schools were superior to those of the white areas, and many of the houses had indoor plumbing before those in the white areas did.  Prior to the 1921 razing of the town, there were fifteen well-known black American physicians.  Notable among them was Dr. A.C. Jackson, whom the Mayo brothers considered the “most able Negro surgeon in America.”

Known as “Black Wall Street” to those in the community, Greenwood in the early part of the 20th century  was a bustling commercial and social “island” on the Northeast side of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Because African Americans couldn’t shop in areas that were predominately white, a lot of money spent in Greenwood went right back into the community. By 1921, there were more than 10,000 African Americans living in the area.  The community supported two of its own newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun—the second covering state and national news and politics as well.

The Williams Dreamland Theatre

The Williams Dreamland Theatre, a black owned business in the Greenwood District.

Across the tracks, however, many white Tulsans were not happy about the growth and prosperity of the community.  Greenwood’s prosperity far outpaced the neighboring white district of Tulsa.

The legacy of Greenwood as an economic Mecca for African Americans in the early 1900s is known by many, but moreso because of the terrorism and violence that was visited upon it in 1921.  In an explosion of white rage due to a questionable charge of assault by a young white woman, a race riot was sparked in Tulsa.  Over a period of 12 hours, the whites went on a shooting, burning and looting rampage in Greenwood.  By the following morning, they had destroyed all 35 blocks of the once wealthy district.  Greenwood was also bombed from the sky by local and national law enforcement organizations according to witnesses.

Greenwood burning

Greenwood burning during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

The black residents that weren’t killed were arrested and detained while Tulsa was placed under martial law, and the approximately 9000 African American residents of Greenwood were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.  Following the events known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the area was rebuilt and thrived until the 1960s when desegregation allowed blacks to shop in once restricted areas.

Greenwood after the race riot.

Photo courtesy Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture, The University of Oklahoma – Tulsa.

I might discuss the Greenwood burning separately from this post; it was important to acknowledge the thriving, prosperous community and the pioneers that helped make it a reality.  For further reading on the events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot I strongly recommend The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan.  It contains primary accounts and details the timeline and aftermath.  It is worth reading for an understanding of the horrors of racial terrorism.

Travelbox History Corner will resume tomorrow.

Sources

“A Lost Black Township: Greenwood Oklahoma, ‘The Black Wall Street of America.'” Our Heritage Magazine, n.d. Web. 19 February 2017. http://ourheritagemagazine.com/our-heritage-magazine-online/black-wall-street-tulsa-1921-race-riot/.

“Black Wall Street.” Greenwood Cultural Center, n.d. Web. 19 February 2017. http://www.greenwoodculturalcenter.com/black-wall-street.

“Greenwood, Okla.: The Legacy of the Tulsa Race Riot.” The Root, 2011. Web. 19 February 2017. http://www.theroot.com/greenwood-okla-the-legacy-of-the-tulsa-race-riot-1790862897.

Hughes, Martin. “How Oklahoma Covered Up The Worst Race Riot In World History.” Barrier Breaker, 2015. Web. 19 February 2017. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/barrierbreaker/banning-ap-history-is-nothing-oklahoma-hosted-the-second-worst-riot-in-world-history-and-covered-it-up-for-decades/.

Pickens, Josie. “The Destruction of Black Wall Street.” Ebony Magazine, 2013. Web. 19 February 2017. http://www.ebony.com/black-history/the-destruction-of-black-wall-street-405.

“The Race Riot That Destroyed Black Wall Street.” Official Black Wall Street, 2015. 19 February 2017. http://www.officialblackwallstreet.com/black-wall-street-story/.

Weber, Brandon. “Ever Heard Of ‘Black Wall Street’?” The Progressive, 2016. Web. 19 February 2017. http://progressive.org/dispatches/ever-heard-black-wall-street/.

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