More than a century ago, Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, built a thriving district that was a center of Black wealth.
The prosperous community consisted of more than 600 businesses and 35 square blocks in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, with a population upwards of 10,000 African Americans.
Due to racial segregation, Greenwood’s Black residents mostly patronized businesses owned by Black entrepreneurs, including beauty parlors, barber shops, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, hotels, funeral homes, pool halls, theaters, restaurants and transportation services.
“The community was a community of necessity,” said Hannibal B. Johnson, a Tulsa-based historian and author of “Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with Its Historical Racial Trauma.”
“There would not have been a Black Wall Street had it not been for Jim Crow segregation. There wouldn’t be a need for one.”
O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner from Arkansas, played an important role in transforming Tulsa’s Greenwood District into the first “Black Wall Street.” He moved to Tulsa in 1906, where he purchased 40 acres of land to sell to other African Americans.
Gurley named the district’s main street after Greenwood, Mississippi, and the name was later extended to the whole neighborhood. He owned a grocery store and a Masonic lodge and rented out three brick apartment buildings and five townhomes. He built the Gurley hotel and opened an employment agency for migrant workers. Gurley also loaned money to other Black entrepreneurs looking to start their own establishments.
According to Forbes magazine, Gurley’s fortune was worth roughly $200,000 — equivalent to $2.7 million today.
One of his business partners was J.B. Stradford, a wealthy Black attorney and real estate developer. He operated the Stradford Hotel — regarded as the largest Black-owned hotel in the nation — with 54 suites, a dining room, a gambling hall, a pool hall and a saloon.
Other prominent Black business owners in the area included A.J. Smitherman, who founded the Tulsa Star, one of several Black-owned newspapers in the area, and John and Loula Williams, who owned a candy shop and the Dreamland Theater, a 750-seat movie theater.
By 1921, the Greenwood district had grown to become one of the wealthiest enclaves for Black Americans in the nation.
Every dollar spent in the district circulated within the neighborhood and its businesses at least 36 times, according to estimates by historians.
“It was seen by many as an example of what was possible for African Americans at that time — decades after the Civil War,” said Tim Madigan, author of “The Burning — Massacre, Destruction and The Tulsa Race Riot.”
The 1921 massacre devastated the prosperous Black enclave. As many as 300 people were killed, thousands were left homeless and hundreds of businesses, churches and homes were destroyed when a mob of about 10,000 armed whites looted and burned down the district. It has been estimated that rioters destroyed up to $200 million of Black property in today’s dollars.
When the mob attacked Greenwood, Gurley and Stradford lost the bulk of their fortune as their hotels and townhomes were burned. Forbes magazine notes that Stradford’s hotel would eventually be valued at roughly $75,000, or more than $1 million in today’s dollars. A historic plaque now marks the place where the hotel stood.
Stradford fled Tulsa after the massacre and headed to Chicago, where he established a law practice. The entrepreneur was one of a dozen Black men who were charged with inciting a riot.
“He was known as one of the leaders of the Black community and was very much a more militant voice in terms of standing up for Black people,” Madigan said.
“Therefore he was a target for Tulsa whites and he had to flee for his life.”
Stradford’s great-grandson, John W. Rogers Jr., is the founder and co-CEO of the Ariel Investments, the first Black-owned asset management firm.
“That whole family story is remarkable because one has to imagine what the family legacy would have been in Tulsa had it not been for the forced fleeing of his great-grandfather J.B. Stradford,” Johnson said.
Greenwood was rebuilt by residents after the massacre, prospered for many years and hit an economic peak in 1941. However, the Black business community started to decline during the 1960s and 1970s due to integration and urban renewal. Urban renewal efforts razed much of Greenwood district and displaced a lot of Black businesses and residents.
Johnson said integration is a negative factor when it comes to the economic and financial health of a segregated business community.
“When you think about it, integration ironically leads to the blight that exists that needs to be eliminated by urban renewal,” he said.
“Integration causes businesses to be less successful because they’re not supported by the dollars that once supported them in an insular, closed economy.”
Madigan, a senior writer with the Fort Worth Star Telegram, has interviewed descendants of those who survived the massacre.
“Everywhere you go there is a sense of injustice about how these people lost so much, and other than plaques in the sidewalk, they have been given no kind of [compensation],” he said.
“The story of what happened and the effect on the business community and the community in general of where it is at today is an evolving one and a complicated one. There is no way that you can ignore the fact that albeit it has been restored to history there is tremendous amount of injustice that remains in that story,” Madigan continued.
The 2001 report of the state’s Tulsa Race Massacre Commission estimated the total property damage at almost $2 million, or about $29 million in today’s dollars.
Using another method, a study published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 2018 said: “If 1,200 median priced houses in Tulsa were destroyed today, the loss would be around $150 million. The additional loss of other assets, including cash, personal belongings, and commercial property, might bring the total to over $200 million.”
The survivors never recovered the lost wealth. No compensation or reparations were paid.
“The big question in my mind is — as we approach the 100th anniversary — is will more people in the white community come to see the necessity for making something more than a token gesture to make whole what happened there — because it was so tangible,” Madigan said.
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