Blackness in Tulsa, Oklahoma does not begin and end with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. It is thriving, despite years of re-segregation following the death of Jim Crow, redlining, and redistricting. But the residents of the city, particularly those with deep roots and ties to those three days between May 30 and June 1, 1921, remember all too well.
They recall Greenwood, an area of Black abundance, of creation and independence, and the heroes who established one of, if not the model Black economic boomtowns since Reconstruction. Through Hollywood magic, the horrors of the massacre were given new eyes thanks to shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. But for a generation of Black men, women, and children – Tulsa, Oklahoma wasn’t a city in the middle of a state who had gained statehood not long after the turn of the 20th century. Tulsa represented freedom.
The oil boom in the early 1900s brought many from neighboring states such as Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and more up north to Oklahoma. Following the Civil War, the largest number of Black towns were located in the state. One entrepreneur, O.W. Gurley, wanted to make certain Black people weren’t shorted in their chase for an opportunity. He bought 40 acres of land and decided Black settlers would be the main individuals he would sell to. Gurley was born in Arkansas and at the end of the Civil War and waning days of Reconstruction, he and other freedmen ventured northwest to claim land previously owned by Native Americans but the federal government made the land available to settlers who were looking to establish their lives out west. The same Blacks who had walked the “Trail of Tears” of Native Americans as slaves now had an opportunity to own land. Eventually, Gurley and other Black entrepreneurs settled in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, wanting to create as Tulsa-based historian Hannibal Johnson put it, “something for Black people and by Black people.”
“It was an economy born of necessity,” Johnson told Forbes in 2020. “It wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jim Crow segregation and the inability of Black folks to participate to a substantial degree in the larger white-dominated economy.”
Gurley strongly believed in the circulation of the Black dollar, to the point where when Blacks were routinely denied by white banks and establishments for even entering, Gurley helped them out. One of those early believers was J.B. Stradford, a son of former slaves who later graduated from Oberlin College, obtaining a law degree from Indiana Law School, and established a hotel in Tulsa which became one of the more pristine hotels in the country, Black-owned or not. The Stradford Hotel was the largest Black-operated and Black-guest-only hotel in America, home to a gambling hall, dining room, saloon, and pool hall. It was the mecca for entertainment in Greenwood. Soon after, other entrepreneurs would establish their names in the area. John Williams and his wife Loula would build the Dreamland Theater. Simon Berry built a network of private transportation that brought Black residents from Greenwood through downtown Tulsa. Booker T. Washington, who had a high school named after him in the area dubbed the community, “Negro Wall Street.” The white community watching the growth and explosion of Greenwood dubbed it something else: Little Africa.
Gurley continued seeking greater for Blacks in the community and at one point, his portfolio was worth $150,000. Adjust for inflation and 2020 dollars and we’re discussing $5 million. Former slaves and individuals who believed the Jim Crow South was a dead-end were instead creating the fabled “American Dream” right in the heartland of a country shaking off the tatters of a civil war. There was still a bit of a wealth gap but Greenwood represented modern America far more than any other “small” city.
The Red Summer of 1919, where the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and white on Black violence began to crack the aura and beauty of Greenwood. By early 1920, tensions between the Black residents and whites who deemed them inferior even with their massive wealth and modern society. It all came to ahead on May 30, 1921.
Dicky Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. Witnesses saw Rowland enter the elevator with Page, but no sexual assault actually occurred. The mere rumor an assault had occurred enraged a white mob to demand Rowland be handed over to them as opposed to being in the custody of the town’s sheriff. Not interested in being intimidated, Black men, mostly comprised of World War I veterans, went to the courthouse, armed to defend Rowland’s name. The vets were met by 1,500 whites and later retreated. The show of force by Black residents was enough for whites to begin ravaging Greenwood, shooting Black men, women, and children, firebombing buildings, and more. For two days the massacre raged on. At one point, bombs were dropped on buildings, and in all, over 1,200 houses had been burned to the ground and 35 blocks of Black economic ingenuity and enterprise had been destroyed.
The majority of the 10,000 Black residents who claimed Greenwood as home were now homeless. The Black Oz of the South had been razed and gutted, namely due to jealously and false witness. Rowland’s charges were later dismissed but his name still rings in Tulsa lore. It is widely believed more than 300 Black men, women and children died in the massacre, but in 2020, a mass grave was discovered, potentially unearthing even more horrific tales of the three-day war waged on Black Tulsans in Greenwood.
An all-white grand jury blamed the massacre, not on the white men who caused the destruction but rather the Black residents who were mostly in fear, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The mythical stature of Gurley, Stradford, and more echoes in the generations who have come after them. Their names are emblazoned on T-shirts and in the case of Tulsa creatives, the heroes of Black Wall Street are gaining a new appreciation in the arts. It would be nearly 100 years before Oklahoma schools would introduce curriculum surrounding Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre and even then, they failed to leave out truths about the rebirth after the massacre.
The “reborn” Black Wall Street continued to operate as a bastion for Black business but the trauma of the massacre still permeated through. The rise of integration and government construction cut away at the significance of Greenwood from a financial standpoint. “Urban renewal projects” in the late 1960s and 1970s would strip Greenwood of its uniqueness but the seeds had been planted for a renewed interest in the area.
In 2021, the citizens of Tulsa acknowledge the centennial anniversary of the massacre, of the triumphs by the likes of Gurley, Stratford, Berry and the Williams Family. Of the educators like Dr. Stevie Johnson, who along with Choose Tulsa, hosted a group of journalists from across the country to breathe in the history and importance of Black Tulsa in March 2020. The concept of Black Wall Street isn’t gone, because the story of Black abundance thrives forever.