At the turn of the 20th century, Ottawa W. Gurley, a prominent African-American landowner from Arkansas, embarked on a journey that would shape the landscape of opportunity for Black Americans. Known as O.W. Gurley, this visionary entrepreneur was pivotal in establishing Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a flourishing hub of Black-owned businesses and prosperity amidst racial segregation and discrimination. That was until the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when, over two days of white supremacist terrorist massacre killed around 26 Black residents and leveled the community.
Gurley’s journey began with a bold move to participate in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, shortly after resigning from a presidential appointment under President Grover Cleveland. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to Tulsa in 1906, where he acquired 40 acres of land designated exclusively for Black ownership—a groundbreaking feat in a time when racial segregation was deeply entrenched.
The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 was the first land run into the Unassigned Lands of former Indian Territory, which had earlier been assigned to the Creek and Seminole peoples. A land run or land rush is when previously restricted land of the U.S. was opened to homestead on a first-arrival basis.
Gurley used his lad to form the Greenwood district, as it came to be known. It emerged as a beacon of economic empowerment for Black Americans.
“You had the wealthy, middle class, the poor Blacks all living on the same block, and so many of those individuals who started out in the working class, because they lived there, would eventually go on to own their own business in the Greenwood District. That’s a result of Gurley’s contributions,” Dr. Michael Carter, Sr., founder and national president of the Black Wall Street USA national movement, said to told Inc. Magazine.
Gurley owned and operated numerous businesses, including a rooming house that provided refuge for Black migrants fleeing oppression in the South. Gurley also played a pivotal role in founding the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a cornerstone of the Greenwood community. He lost all of it during the Tulsa Massacre, in total, according to court records, e lost nearly $200,000, according to Black Wall Street.
He ultimately left Tulsa. Gurley died from arteriosclerosis and a cerebral hemorrhage, in Los Angeles, on Aug. 6, 1935, at the age of 67.
O.W. Gurley, Photo: Black Wall Street, https://blackwallstreet.org/owgurley