As more is learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, including the discovery of mass graves, the stories of the African Americans who turned the city’s Greenwood neighborhood into “Black Wall Street” are equally revealing. Before a white mob decimated 35 blocks of a thriving community, African Americans had migrated to Tulsa, pooling their resources and creating wealth to build successful businesses amid Jim Crow discrimination.
African Americans and land ownership in Oklahoma
Prior to the establishment of the Greenwood District, African Americans came to Oklahoma in the mid-19e century as slaves to the five civilized tribes, the term used for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes, who were forced to leave their lands in the southeastern part of the country, resettling in Oklahoma , then known as Indian Territory. After the Civil War, under the terms of the treaties of 1866, these African Americans were emancipated and some integrated into the tribes, a relationship that would later offer the freed their own land.
“The relative wealth of some Oklahoma blacks comes in part from their connection to the tribes and their land ownership,” says Hannibal Johnson, historian and author of Black Wall Street 100: an American city grappling with its historic racial trauma. The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the government to divide tribal territories into allotments for individual Native Americans, which included black members. As rumors spread that Indian Territory was a safe place for African Americans, between 1865 and 1920 more than 50 Black Townships were founded in Oklahoma.
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A wealthy black landowner named OW Gurley is commonly referred to as the founder of Greenwood. Born to freed slaves in Alabama, Gurley was raised in Arkansas and moved to Oklahoma during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. After running a general store in Perry, Oklahoma, Gurley, a serial entrepreneur, relocated in oil-rich Tulsa and reportedly bought 40 acres of land on the city’s north side with the vision of selling residential and commercial plots to African Americans. Gurley wasted no time opening a rooming house, purchasing buildings, and providing loans to help other black people start their own businesses.
And another entrepreneur shared Gurley’s dream of Greenwood becoming a self-sustaining enclave for the Black Tulsans.
JB Stradford, son of a former slave, was a Kentucky lawyer who owned pool halls, shoe shine parlors, and guesthouses, before moving to Tulsa around 1899, with the goal of building wealth in Indian territory. Stradford invested in real estate and built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue, a luxury property considered to be the largest black-owned hotel in the country, with 54 suites, a billiard room, lounge and dining room .
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A thriving community
African Americans fleeing racial oppression in the Deep South and those who wanted to live in a city with more resources migrated to the Greenwood district of Tulsa.
AJ Smitherman, whose family moved to Indian Territory in the 1890s, founded the Star of Tulsa, a black newspaper based in Greenwood. As an editor, Smitherman has been outspoken about discrimination and has regularly educated African Americans about their legal rights and called on black men, many in Tulsa who served in World War I, to take up arms, in response to the violence of the white crowd.
“He literally went into lynchings and other types of events all over Oklahoma,” Johnson says. “He was an activist in every sense of the word. And the residents of Greenwood looked out for each other and supported black-owned businesses. In the neighborhood there were luxury boutiques, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, theaters, barber shops and salons, billiard rooms, nightclubs, funeral homes, and doctors’ offices. , lawyers and dentists. Greenwood also had its own schools, post office, bank, hospital, and jitney service.
Education and Entrepreneurship
Education also attracted black families to Greenwood. In 1913, Booker T. Washington High School opened, hiring Ellis Walker Woods as its principal, a beloved educator who would hold the post for 35 years. Woods, who had attended college, walked from Memphis to Oklahoma after seeing a flyer advertising black teachers in Oklahoma.
Simon Berry, a pilot, responded to Tulsa’s white-only taxi service by launching his own with a Ford Model-T, then expanding operations to include a bus line and later charter plane service for them. rich oil tankers.
John and Loula Williams became among the richest blacks in Tulsa. They owned the Dreamland Theater on Greenwood Avenue, as well as a rooming house, candy store, commercial rental building and garage. Loula Williams was heavily involved in all of the couple’s businesses, and other women in Greenwood also became entrepreneurs. Mabel Little, from Boley, Oklahoma, arrived in Tulsa in 1913 with $ 1.25 in her pocket. Little, who lived to be 104 and survived the massacre, opened a thriving barber shop and worked in the beauty business for decades.
Although wealthy blacks lived in Greenwood, many of them were still struggling, taking menial jobs and living in slums. But the money they spent in the district helped build the community.
“People working outside the neighborhood, especially servants, housekeepers, cooks, nannies or ushers in beautiful Art Deco theaters or bellboys in big hotels, were paid and returned to Greenwood with their money. », Explains Michelle Place, executive director of the Historical Society and Museum of Tulsa. “With segregation, they can’t spend their money anywhere else. They can earn their money in the district, but they cannot spend it there. “
Racial terror hits Greenwood
On May 31, 1921, a white mob descended on Greenwood, destroying 1,000 homes and several businesses, displacing most of the area’s 10,000 residents. According to reports, 300 black residents were killed.
Greenwood was rebuilt, with the help of BC Franklin, an attorney from Rentiesville, Oklahoma, who moved to Greenwood a few months before the massacre. Franklin successfully challenged discriminatory orders intended to prevent the residents of Greenwood from rebuilding themselves after the massacre.
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