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Origins of Black Wall Street

Ottowa W. Gurley took notice of the oil boom in Tulsa from his home in Perry, Oklahoma, at the turn of the century. Soon after the boom began, he sold his land in Perry and moved to Tulsa with his wife, Emma. He was now thirty-five years old and saw an economic opportunity in Tulsa’s multiracial population boom. In Tulsa he bought a 40-acre tract of land north of the train station and built a grocery store on a dirt road in the middle of the undeveloped swath of land that sat north of the train tracks that ran across the city. He also forged an informal partnership with another black businessman named John the Baptist Stradford. Stradford was tall and sinewy, with a prominent square jaw and piercing black eyes. Both men, with their families’ roots in enslavement, shared a distrust of white people and went by their initials, OW and JB respectively, instead of their first names. It was the custom in the South that men were addressed by their title or surname and boys by their first name. Black adult males were frequently called by their first names by white men as a form of emasculation.

OW was a subscriber to the philosophies of Booker T. Washington, while JB was a follower of the more radical W. E. B. Du Bois. Nonetheless, their differences aside, the two men began to develop an all- black district in the unincorporated stretch of land north of Tulsa’s train station. They subdivided the plots they owned in uptown Tulsa on the north side of a set of railroad tracks into housing and retail lots, alleys and streets that they made available only to other African Americans fleeing the lynchings and terror of the South for the economic opportunity of Tulsa’s oil boom. On a long street near the train tracks made of dry dirt and dust Gurley built boardinghouses in square two- story brick structures near his grocery store, naming the street Greenwood Avenue, after the town in Mississippi from which many of his first residents hailed. There he also built a colored school and an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Soon the entire north side of Tulsa was referred to as Greenwood.

Ottowa W. Gurley with Greenwood founders.

Gurley also built three brick apartment buildings as well as five detached homes, which he rented out to blacks. His crowning project was the Gurley Hotel on Greenwood Avenue, which was valued at $55,000 and rivaled the best white hotels in Tulsa. OW and JB both became rich as the oil industry boomed on in Tulsa and hundreds of African Americans emigrated to Greenwood. In 1914, the local black newspaper, the Muskogee Scimitar, reported Gurley’s net worth to be as much as $150,000 ($3.6 million). He used his wealth to help start a black Masonic lodge in Greenwood and an employment agency, and he contributed to efforts to push back against black voter suppression in the state. Gurley was made a sheriff’s deputy by the city of Tulsa and charged with policing the black population in Greenwood. Gurley’s wealth and coziness with the white establishment in Tulsa created resentment of him among many black members of society, who saw him as having too much power in Greenwood. Many saw Gurley as an Uncle Tom. In the Tulsa Star, which was operated by a militant black columnist and publisher named A. J. Smitherman, Gurley was pejoratively referred to as the “king” of “little Africa.”

Following behind OW and JB, white developers began to buy up plots of land north of the railroad tracks and sell them to blacks. By 1905, the district had attracted a black doctor and a black dentist, who each established practices there. A second school, a newspaper, a Baptist church, and a hardware store were also built. Gurley and Stradford’s vision of an all- black district was taking shape. At the same time, informal segregation was occurring in Tulsa as blacks converged to the north of the tracks and whites to the south.

In the morning, dozens of Greenwood residents walked across the train tracks to domestic jobs in Tulsa; the remainder stayed behind, working at the new black businesses that were being developed in Greenwood. Alongside the professional businesses were juke joints, saloons, and gambling houses. Their black proprietors grew rich in Greenwood catering to white men’s vices.

When the Oklahoma territory achieved statehood in 1907 and segregationist Democrats, led by the white supremacist Bill “Alfalfa” Murray, took control of all levels of government, they passed laws against interracial marriage and prohibited blacks from working at high- wage jobs. In 1910, one of the first grandfather clauses preventing blacks from voting was passed. As OW and JB watched the state, led by Alfalfa Bill, who was now Speaker of the state house of representatives, enact Jim Crow laws, they knew they had been right all along in striking out on their own.

Black districts such as Greenwood existed across the country. In Atlanta, Alonzo Herndon helped found the Sweet Auburn District, an enclave of black politicians, professors, and deans from Spelman and Atlanta universities, and preachers such as Martin Luther King Sr. Tulsa was, however, different from places such as Memphis, Atlanta, Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Chicago; Greenwood was an affluent black enclave in a white city where blacks controlled no political institutions and could rely only on one another to protect themselves from racial hostility.

Greenwood was equal parts black mecca and Wild West. Both men and women frequently carried pistols with them, and disputes were often settled by street brawls and shootouts. Believing they had left hegemony behind in the deep South, Greenwood’s residents had little tolerance for racial violence. They were quick to respond to attacks or threats from whites with punches or bullets. In one such instance in 1909, J. B. Stradford was walking along Greenwood Avenue when a white deliveryman made a pejorative remark about his dark skin. Stradford jumped on the man and threw him to the ground. He then straddled him and beat him until his face was covered with blood. A group of black men came running up and pulled him off. “If you kill him, they’ll mob you,” one said. Stradford was charged for the beating but hired an attorney and was acquitted. Later, Stradford was kicked off a train in Oklahoma for riding in the first- class car, having purchased a first- class ticket. He was asked to move to the colored car but refused. He sued in an effort to desegregate Tulsa’s train cars but lost in court, to the chagrin of Greenwood’s residents. 

In Oklahoma, the forces of segregation were gaining strength. Housing segregation was legalized, banning blacks from living in white neighborhoods. The segregation of Tulsa, ironically, strengthened Greenwood’s black business district. The dollars earned by Greenwood’s black professionals as well as the black domestics who made money on the white side of town seemed never to leave Greenwood. Merchants boasted that a black dollar circulated through the black community twenty- six times before it left. As Jim Crow laws were passed throughout the country, the economic effects experienced in Greenwood were replicated, as black communities became economically independent and black merchants and businesses marketed to a captive and loyal market.

Greenwood was thriving as segregation spread across the state and the country. On Thursday nights, Greenwood was the place to be for men and women of color, as well as whites, who would slip across the train tracks without being seen by their neighbors. On Thursdays and Sundays, domestics had the day off, and on Thursday nights they came together to party late into the evening. The cooks, butlers, chauffeurs, and laundresses who worked in the white section of Tulsa took to the streets of Greenwood to dance. The dingy roads, which the white politicians in city hall neglected to pave or light, came alive as vendors lined the sidewalks with stands that offered candy, peaches, and water melons. Men dressed in navy blue and black suits with off- white shirts and gold pocket watches, and women in silk dresses that hugged their midsections and hips, flowed into the streets as the sun went down. There was no music, no band, just the sound of people’s feet sliding on the dirt roads. Together they moved to their own internal rhythm, hollering, shaking, swirling down the streets in a communal strut like the second line of a New Orleans parade. “It was like a pantomime, people just moving up and down,” remembered the historian John Hope Franklin, who grew up in Greenwood. “They were going in and out of restaurants and they were just there to be seen. They were dressed in their finest, and they looked beautiful to me.”

Greenwood was not the richest black town in the United States, not even close. Annie Malone’s industrializing St. Louis, Bob Church’s blues- filled Memphis, and Alonzo Herndon’s Atlanta, filled with black colleges and businesses, all had a much larger black professional class than Greenwood did. What made Greenwood special was that it was a place a sharecropper, an ordinary person, could go to and have a respectable life, find decent- paying work, and hope for a better life for his children. With oilmen relocating to Tulsa, the resulting high demand for domestics enabled blacks to attain unheard- of wages. Maids earned $20 to $25 ($500 to $625) a week; chauffeurs earned $15 ($375); gardeners made $20 ($500); janitors, shoe shiners, and porters earned around $10 ($250). Domestics made up almost two- thirds of Greenwood’s population, the remainder being professionals and business owners, whom the maids and chauffeurs hoped their children could imitate one day. The children of Greenwood’s professionals attended Columbia Law School, Oberlin College, the Hampton Institute, the Tuskegee Institute, Spelman College, and Atlanta University. Greenwood’s culture prided itself on education; the area had one of the lowest black illiteracy rates in the country and a high school graduation rate above 50 percent. This was unheard- of in other areas of the country. Tulsa was indeed a Magic City for African Americans.

The stories of Greenwood’s prosperity became legend in black America. Annie Malone set up an office to sell her hair products in the enclave and it became known as one of the country’s most economically stable black districts. Booker T. Washington gave Greenwood a new name, “Black Wall Street.”

From Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills. Copyright © 2018 by Shomari Wills. Reprinted by permission of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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