by Damon Carr, For New Pittsburgh Courier
On June 1, 2021, we recently recognized and honored the 100-year anniversary of what was billed as Tulsa’s Race Riot —now commonly referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre. During this massacre, White mobs unleashed violence and destruction against Black people, Black-owned residential and business property, Black churches, Black schools, and ultimately Black wealth. It has been reported that over 300 people died, most of whom were Black. Over 1,000 people were injured. More than 1,000 homes and 300 businesses were destroyed. Also destroyed in this massacre were schools, churches, and hospitals. More than 10,000 people were left homeless.
Approximately 35 acres of commercial and residential property was destroyed. Total property value lost during this time which includes houses, commercial buildings, personal belongings and cash would be valued at approximately $200 million in today’s dollars.
This loss and devastation have never been recovered. During this time, they cleverly used the terms “Race Riot” to illustrate the event as opposed to “Race Massacre.” Doing so allowed insurance companies to deny all claims for property damage—except one. One White shop owner was given compensation for guns taken from his shop.
I became fascinated with the story surrounding Black Wall Street. I literally watched over 15 documentaries and read countless articles on the subject. What gravitated me wasn’t the massacre itself but how did Black people, only one generation removed from slavery, obtain the education, resources, and know-how to develop a prosperous thriving community against all odds including Jim Crow segregation laws? Let me be more specific. How did these Black people create the wealthiest Black community in America, Greenwood, in 1921, the North Side of Tulsa?
This was a prosperous community, exclusively Black. In this community there were Black owned banks, grocery stores, movie theaters, pharmacies, restaurants, churches, law offices, hospitals, hotels, newspaper publishing, barber shops, hair salons, a bus company, taxi services, photography shops, shoeshine parlors, auto mechanic shops, schools, and a business college.
During this time, Greenwood was known to have more millionaires living there than the entire United States combined. There were only two airports in the state of Oklahoma. One of the airports was to house the six private airplanes owned by Greenwood’s Black oil tycoons. The minimum wage and living standard of those living in Greenwood far exceeded that of the average White citizen in Tulsa.
Much is said about what happened leading up to the massacre. Very little is mentioned regarding how did Black people create this thriving community that was the darling of Black people and the envy of White people? To gather some insight on how this community was built, I had to delve into the background of a few prominent people including OW Gurley, JB Stratford, AC Jackson, AJ Smitherman, and John and Loula Williams:
OW Gurley: He’s the Godfather of Greenwood. He was self-educated and married to his childhood sweetheart, Emma. He worked as a teacher, postal worker, and school principal. He also owned and operated a general store in the community. He sold his property and store and moved to Tulsa. There he purchased 40 acres of land. He initially built a grocery store and a rooming house on a road, which eventually became named Greenwood Ave. He then subdivided his land into residential and commercial lots. He set out to sell the land exclusively to Black people. He believed Black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, worked together, and supported each other’s businesses. He provided loans to other startup business owners and founded several other businesses of his own.
JB Stradford: JB was married to Augusta. He was the son of a slave whose given slave name was Caesar. The daughter of the slave owner taught Caesar to read. Caesar read about the Emancipation Proclamation and petitioned his slave owner to free him. His slave owner eventually freed him. JB was Caesar’s first-born. Caesar taught his family how to read and executed a plan to liberate his family from slavery. JB improved on his father’s legacy by becoming an Indiana University trained attorney. His interest was in social justice, racial solidarity, and real estate development. He first launched a hotel in Alexandria, Indiana in 1899. When that hotel went out of business, JB began to look for other business opportunities. He moved to Greenwood and became an informal business partner with OW Gurley. The two invested in land, built rental homes and sold and rented exclusively to Black people. JB amassed a sizable fortune which was mainly in real estate including his home, a bubbling hotel, 24 rental and rooming houses, apartment buildings, pool halls, shoeshine parlors and bathhouses.
Space will not allow me to delve into other noteworthy people who helped establish Little Africa. I’ll give a brief summary here. Other notables and influential figures included AC Jackson, the internationally acclaimed surgeon. He was the most well-known person gunned was the most well-known person gunned down and killed during the massacre.
Also killed was AJ Smitherman, an attorney and Editor and Publisher of one of the first Black Daily Newspapers, Tulsa Star, and John and Loula Williams, the owners of several businesses including Dreamland Theaters.
Key factors I observed as I read these stories regarding how Little Africa was built:
• Education: Be it informal or formal education. Learning how to read and becoming educated is what Black people believed would bring them both equality and equity.
• Hard-Working: Black people were extremely industrious. They worked sun-up to sundown, often working multiple jobs.
• Save Money: They would often work doing domestic jobs for White people to save money to start their own businesses.
• Multiple streams of income: All of the nobles mentioned had multiple streams of income, be it multiple businesses, multiple income producing properties, or a combination of both.
• Willingness to help each other: There were no crabs in the barrel mentality during this time.
• Reinvested in the community: They were constantly seeking ways to improve and expand the community. They also consistently ran ads inspiring other Black people from other states to come and live in an environment created by Black people for Black people
• Black Patronage: It was primarily the Jim Crow laws of the time but what really allowed Black people and Black businesses to thrive in Little Africa is the fact that Black people supported Black Business by spending their hard-earned dollars exclusively in the Black community.
It was given the name “Black Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington, after he visited the town and observed the bustling community. However, White people called it Little Africa. I find it interesting that then and now, when we as Black people observe something that we consider to be good or great, we compare it to a White establishment. Yet, White people compared it to Africa. Knowing a little bit of Africa’s rich history, I prefer Little Africa.
Lastly, even after the destruction of Little Africa, Black people rebuilt this Dreamland in Greenwood in the 1940s. Only this time, desegregation was law. This allowed Blacks to spend their dollars amongst the larger White community. Without Black People supporting Black businesses as they did in the past, the newly developed Greenwood didn’t thrive.
(Damon Carr, Money Coach can be reached @ 412-216-1013 or visit his website @ www.damonmoneycoach.com)