The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was considered the wealthiest Black enclave in the U.S. in the early 20th century when African Americans ran a thriving business district there known as Black Wall Street.
Mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in Greenwood on May 31 and June 1, 1921, during the Tulsa race massacre.
The violence was sparked after a Black shoeshine man named Dick Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, Sarah Page, in the elevator of a downtown office building. The next day, a large mob gathered around the jail in Tulsa where Rowland was being held. Tensions flared and a riot broke out.
As many as 50 whites and an estimated 200 Black people died, and more than 35 city blocks were destroyed. Greenwood’s total property loss was almost $2 million (worth more than $50 million now), according to some estimates.
No one was ever prosecuted or punished for what was considered the biggest racial massacre in American history, and it was mostly forgotten.
In the 35-square-block area known as Black Wall Street, Tulsa residents who had historically worked mainly as servants in Tulsa developed their own insular community with its own economy. Black businesses included grocery stores and barbershops. Doctors and real estate agents opened their own businesses. The neighborhood also had its own newspaper and schools.
One square block typically encompasses four city streets and contains a number of separate properties.
Because all the businesses were Black-owned, Black leader and educator Booker T. Washington himself dubbed Greenwood “Negro Wall Street.”
Here are nine trailblazers who helped build Black Wall Street.
Considered the founder of Greenwood, Ottowa “O.W.” Gurley was a wealthy Black landowner. Born in 1868 to freed slaves in Alabama, Gurley was raised in Arkansas and moved to Oklahoma during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. A serial entrepreneur, he has several businesses including a general store in Perry, Oklahoma, before removing to oil-rich Tulsa. It was reported that Gurley purchased 40 acres of land on the city’s north side with the vision of selling residential and commercial plots to African Americans, Black Past reported.
He became one of the wealthiest men in Tulsa.
During the riot, Gurley tried to defend other residents and protect his property. He was arrested for inciting the conflict and implicated two other Black leaders — fellow wealthy businessman J.B. Stradford and newspaper editor A.J. Smitherman — to secure his release. Then he fled to Los Angeles, Black Past reported.
In L.A., Gurley and his wife ran a small hotel. Gurley died in 1935 at age 67.
The son of a former slave, J.B. Stradford went on to become a lawyer in Kentucky. There, he owned pool halls, shoeshine parlors and boarding houses. He moved to Tulsa around 1899 with the goal of creating wealth in American Indian territory, History.com reported.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Indian territory was a region conceived in 1825 as all the land lying west of the Mississippi. Eventually, it would encompass the present states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and part of Iowa.
In Greenwood, Stradford invested in real estate properties and built the luxury Stratford Hotel, considered the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. It had 54 guest suites, a pool hall, a saloon, and a dining room.
A.J. Smitherman was a media pioneer who distributed the first Democratic, African-American newspaper in Oklahoma and the East Coast. He reported on how Black Greenwood residents built their own hospitals, schools, theaters, newspapers and churches.
He was also an activist and organized resistance against lynchings and mob violence.
Because of his activities, he was indicted for inciting the Tulsa massacre of 1921. Using his newspaper platform, on the eve of the massacre, Smitherman warned Black citizens of the likely fate of the attack and encouraged them to be ready to defend themselves. When the attack occurred, Smitherman helped one family escape their home while the Ku Klux Klan doused the house with kerosene and lit it on fire.
Husband and wife John Wesley and Loula Tom Williams were among Greenwood’s first residents, making their way from Mississippi to Tulsa in about 1903.
After working for a few years operating the steam-powered chilling equipment at The Thompson Ice Cream Company, by 1912 John resigned from his job to open his own auto repair garage. Williams’ One Stop Garage served both Black and white car owners from all over Tulsa.
Loula Williams left her teaching job to open a confectionery on the first floor of a three-story building the Williams built. The Williams Confectionery sold candy and ice cream and featured a fully-stocked soda fountain, The Victory of Greenwood reported.
In 1913, the couple opened a movie theater, the Empress Theater. Another followed in 1914 when Loula opened the Williams Dreamland Theatre with a seating capacity of 750.
Born in Mississippi in 1890, Simon Barry taught auto mechanics at West Tennessee College before moving to Tulsa. At the time, taxi services in Tulsa were only available for white people. So he started a jitney service for a nickel ride. A jitney was a sort of car-sharing service where you hailed a car, told the driver where you wanted to go, and got in with other passengers, according to the Greenwood Bank website.
Besides the jitney service, Barry also built a mechanic garage where he trained Black mechanics.
He stayed in the area after the massacre and helped rebuild Greenwood. He earned his pilot’s license and bought an open-cockpit biplane in 1925. With his business partner James Lee Northington, he launched a charter airline service. Barry also bought buses and started a bus line, getting a license to operate the franchise in 1928. Two years earlier, in 1926, he bought 13 acres of land and transformed them into a park with a rose garden, swimming pool, dance hall, and picnic grounds. In 1929, he gifted the park to the city of Tulsa.
B.C. (Buck Colbert) Franklin had a string of entrepreneurial adjectives behind his name — attorney, rancher, newspaper publisher, postmaster general, writer. He might be best known for fighting for the victims of the massacre.
Following the attack, he set up a tent in the Greenwood District and began working to defend the rights of massacre victims, TulsaHistory.org reported.
Franklin sued the City of Tulsa and Mayor T.D. Evans and ultimately won the case, allowing the reconstruction of the Greenwood community. However, Franklin was unsuccessful in trying to get the insurance claims of Greenwood’s business and homeowners paid out.
Ellis Walker Woods was the son of former slaves and was born in Mississippi in 1885. After college, he set out for Memphis, Tennessee, to make his fortune. But lack of opportunities led Woods to take a teaching position in Oklahoma. The story is Woods traveled the 500 miles from Memphis to Tulsa on foot, according to Oklahoma State University, Tulsa. He became the first principal of Tulsa’s historic Booker T. Washington High School, where he stayed from 1913 to 1948.
Mabel B. Little moved from her hometown of Boley, Oklahoma, to Tulsa in 1913 at 17 years old to attend college. She had a desire to open her own business. In Tulsa she met her husband, Pressley (or Preston) Little. They invested in a beauty parlor in 1917 in downtown Greenwood called the Little Rose Beauty Salon. The shop was a success, and the couple went on to buy a three-room house.
Pressley used one room to continue his shoe-shining business, moved her beauty salon into another room, and the couple lived in the third room, Black Wall Street Women reported
By 1918, the salon had really taken off. Mabel built a client base of more than 600people and moved it to a five-room house the couple also purchased.
Later on, the entrepreneurial couple opened a restaurant called the Little Cafe.
Photo: People walk by a mural for Black Wall Street in the Greenwood district during centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre, May 30, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/John Locher)