Excerpt: The invisible hands of those bent on destroying the wealth and dreams of a heroic group of affluent black men and women, who made Black Wall Street in Tulsa a beacon of hope for a lot of black people, are still with us in another form. However, there is a way to not only rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit of Greenwood Tulsa and other affluence black enclaves at the time, but to improve on it.
By John Conley III
As the saying goes, in business, desperation is the mother of invention. That’s at the heart of every driven entrepreneur: create a solution for a problem that benefits as many people as possible. And as it were, this is exactly the entrepreneurial spirit that drove black business thinkers such as O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford to turn 40 acres in North Tulsa into an African American economic jewel of a juggernaut that still looms large in the psyche of conscious brothas and sistas everywhere. In this article, I won’t focus too much on the tragic, government-supported plot that ganged up on Greenwood Tulsa on Memorial Day Weekend, 1921. There are plenty of great sources that go into much detail on this aspect of Black Wall Street. I will call out a few new angles to the tragedy later, but the gist of this article is to celebrate the Genius of Greenwood, as well as explore business patterns for improving on what those great men and women achieved a century ago.
The first step in understanding what made Black Wall Street successful is to take an honest, perhaps blunt, look at the conditions that led to the need for an economic oasis for black people a little over 20 years after slavery ended. I say “honest” and “blunt” because history is often told in the eyes of the victor, and in this case, we actually can’t fully afford to rely on the official history the late 1860s to the late 1890s as taught in schools. The official, watered down history leaves us with the impression that all whites hate blacks and wanted them re-enslaved across the board and that the KKK was the mastermind behind it all. We’re also left with the impression that the Reconstruction Era was a blip that need not be explored in detail by blacks. Finally, our minds are left with the notion that Jim Crow laws were in place right after slavery. All of these half-truths and deliberate omissions have the effect of making too many blacks feel less capable and needing of others to help lift us out of our situation.
This cannot be further from the truth.
Newly freed slaves and blacks already free were quite industrious, learned, and accomplished pretty quickly. I won’t dive fully into the Reconstruction Era (but please do independent research). But a lot of blacks, even in the south, held high political office and, except for those troublemakers who wanted to pick fights based on skin color, a good number of whites and blacks did get along better than we’re taught. This is important to bring up because, as we saw with the successes of Frederick Douglass and later Booker T. Washington—who visited Tulsa and is credited with the label “Negro Wall Street”—fiery orators among our people did a great job in changing minds on race. Oklahoma during the late 1880s was no different. For those who don’t remember, Oklahoma was considered an unexplored frontier territory. Native Americans, some of whom owned slaves, were forcefully resettled there by way of death marches “aka Trail of Tears) and other atrocities committed upon them by what I’ll call the “Secret System.” I chose the word “secret” because we need to dig deeper into the truth besides what we’ve been force fed by watered down histories written by the very ones who did these things. Nonetheless, Oklahoma was wide open for land ownership by anyone who got to a plot of land sooner than any others. Thus came the expressions “Sooners” and “Boomer Sooner.” The most famous use of the expression today is the University of Oklahoma Sooners (of which I am an alum, gotta disclose that). The Oklahoma Land Run off 1889 is the title given to this history of Oklahoma.
Whites, Native Americans and Blacks all went after a plot of land. A black presidential appointee under the Grover Cleveland administration, O.W. Gurley, who was a wealthy Arkansas landowner, decided to try his fortunes at cheap land in Oklahoma. So he quit his appointment and headed west. Now why would an educated, wealthy landowner quit a presidential position, which would be highly esteemed among blacks and whites, to eventually buy 40 acres of land in Tulsa? If racism were prevalent in Oklahoma as we are left to believe, then surely he would have balked at the idea of leaving such a high office. The fact is, for the most part, the patterns of racial injustice seen in the Deep South, particularly later when the Jim Crow era took over, was not prevalent in Oklahoma. That’s not to say there was no racism at all as blacks had to get second dibs on land not already taken by whites in the land run (they were called the Black 89ers), but it was nothing that rose to the level of stopping black entrepreneurs from putting together a business plan and executing on it.
In fact, Jim Crow did not officially come to Oklahoma until December 1907 with Oklahoma Senate Bill 1 from the Oklahoma Democratic Party, which sanctioned racial segregation (we have to ask ourselves what invisible hand was behind the Senate Democrats who proposed this Jim Crow law?) Before Jim Crow, Oklahoma was uncharted territory and truly the wild west. Black Civil War era soldiers known as Buffalo Soldiers had a big hand in not only helping settle Oklahoma, but also in creating maps and other tasks that contributed to their entrepreneurial spirit.
The land run led to cheap land prices which, when coupled with the desire to live in all black towns to escape racism elsewhere, led many blacks to move to Oklahoma. So, like any smart entrepreneur, Gurley saw a big opportunity and took a chance to seize a vision of even more land ownership when prices were cheap, envisioning a time when property values would go up in the near future. As Travel OK cites, between the end of the civil war in 1865 until right before the fateful 1921 riot year, Oklahoma had some 50 all black towns. Each of them relied on each other for economic and social vitality, which helped with the rate of savings within the black community. According to the Greenwood Cultural Center:
“…the district was so successful that a dollar would stay within the district an estimated nineteen months before being spend elsewhere.”
Black Wall Street, or Little Africa as it was also called, was comparable to Beverly Hills, as many touted. At the height of its first golden age, Greenwood boasted over thriving 600 businesses and organizations, anchored by
- a bank
- a few dozen grocery stores
- two movie theaters including the renowned Dreamland Theater that blacks set aside budget money for tickets
- law offices
- several airplanes which was not common for towns of any race
- a transportation system
- schools and libraries
- post office
- and a hospital
- a famed ice cream parlor that affluent blacks would get married at
Detroit Avenue was where all the big dawgs had their affluent homes. Doctors, lawyers, and top businessmen made this avenue golden. They might as well have called this black millionaire row! Among them was nationally known physician Dr. A.C. Jackson. An article from Ebony Magazine did a great job highlighting the affluence of Black Wall Street Tulsa:
Before there was influential community leader Herman J. Russell, one of the most successful businessmen in Atlanta, Georgia, there was O. W. Gurley, also a very successful businessman and a community leader of Tulsa in 1921. Gurley was considered a pioneer who first opened a grocery store in 1905 to service the Black community. Gurley then bought tracts of undeveloped land and constructed homes for sale and rent to Blacks migrating to Tulsa from the Deep South. He ultimately built one of the finest hotels in the city. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois stayed at his hotel when he visited there in 1921.
Before there was R. Donohue Peeples, owner of the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza, the second largest hotel on South Beach in Miami, Florida, there was John B. Stradford, who built the luxurious 54-room Stradford Hotel, considered at the time, the finest Black owned hotel in the country. Stradford also owned fifteen rental houses and an apartment building. He believed that if Blacks pooled their resources and spent within their community, they could become self-sufficient and thus achieve some independence. Stradford’s strategy was so successful that he became the richest Black man in Tulsa. There is no question if the White rioters hadn’t destroyed all of his property, he probably would have left a substantial fortune to his children and grandchildren. Instead, after the riot, he had to flee the city and ended up in Chicago where he died a disappointed man in 1935.
I highly recommend visiting Ebony.com to read the rest of millionaire stories. What made all of this success possible? Jim Crow laws were not the only political and economic forces that created the necessity for independence. Keep in mind that when O.W. Gurley bought Greenwood in 1906, slavery had ended only a little over 40 years earlier. Most blacks had various skills that are not common today, such as the ability to build high quality, solid houses, some of which stand to this day. They also knew how to do farming and agricultural work, meaning they could source their own food. They knew how to wash their clothes by hand, landscaping, and the veterans provided protection. Americans in general were more self-sufficient then compared to today. This is important as a foundation for branching out into other industries as listed above.
Within 12 hours, the wealth and dreams of about 11,000 blacks came to a ruinous end. It wasn’t envy that fueled the demons who did this, as the jealousy motive is a cop out that the conspirators typically use to distract the public from the truth. Instead, it was a deliberate, government sanctioned plan at the local, state and federal level to eradicate an independent enclave that did not need the government or the Federal Reserve system. If you look around the world over the past 100 years, you will see a similar pattern where elements within our federal government overturned nations that were also independent of the “Secret System.” By calling this a “riot” instead of a government plot to eliminate black independence, black Tulsans could not even submit insurance claims for their business and personal loss. And the local government not only paid lip service to helping them rebuild their Greenwood economy, it created zoning laws to make it very, very difficult to rebuild without getting fined or worse. Yet, the blacks who remained did rebuild, and Greenwood once again thrived, until another government plot to eliminate such independence: desegregation and the highway system project of the 1950s and 60s, the latter of which cut right through black neighborhoods across the country, including North Tulsa where Greenwood was. This one-two punch ended black independence in Tulsa for good.
The series continues with Part 2, coming up soon, so be sure to follow us!