Origins of Black Wall Street

The following is an excerpt from Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionairesby Shomari Wills, which details the origins of Black Wall Street.

Ottawa W. Gurley (aka OW) was a turn-of-the-20th century black educator, entrepreneur, and landowner born to former enslaved Africans. In 1889, after resigning from a position he held in the presidential administration of Grover Cleveland, OW moved from his home state of Arkansas to Perry, Okla., in order to participate in the ‘Oklahoma Land Grab of 1889. Along with his wife Emma, ​​he later moved to Tulsa to take advantage of the economic opportunities resulting from the city’s multiracial population boom. Once there, OW purchased 40 acres of undeveloped land, where he built a grocery store on a dirt road that ran just north of the railroad tracks running through town.

OW went on to partner with fellow black businessman John the Baptist Stradford (aka JB), with whom he shared a general distrust of white people. Both men chose to use their initials instead of their first names. This action was a form of silent protest as Southern men were usually addressed by their surnames, while boys were addressed by their first names. Unfortunately, white men often addressed black men by their first names as a form of emasculation. By using their initials, OW and JB circumvented this practice.

OW and JB sometimes had differing opinions. For example, while OW subscribed to the philosophies of African-American educator Booker T. Washington, JB favored the more radical views of civil rights activist WEB Du Bois. Despite their differences, the two men worked closely together to develop an all-black neighborhood in Tulsa. They subdivided the land into housing areas, retail lands, alleys and streets, all of which were exclusively accessible to other African Americans fleeing lynchings and other racial horrors.

Key points to remember

  • Ottawa W. Gurley was a black educator, entrepreneur, and landowner born to former enslaved Africans.
  • At the start of the 20th century, he purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, Okla.
  • Gurley forged a partnership with black businessman John the Baptist Stradford, and the two developed a all-black neighborhood in Tulsawhich became known as Greenwood.
  • When hundreds of African Americans moved to Greenwood for the oil boom, the two became increasingly wealthy.
  • Greenwood’s prosperity became legendary in black America, with Booker T. Washington dubbing it “Black Wall Street.”

The origin of green wood

After OW built several square, two-story brick boarding houses near his grocery store, he named the street on which these structures stood Greenwood Avenue, after the Mississippi town from which many of its early residents hailed. Before long, the whole area became known as Greenwood, which soon became the site of a school, as well as an African Methodist Episcopal Church. But OW’s flagship project was the Gurley Hotel, whose quality rivaled that of the best white hotels in the state.

As hundreds of African Americans migrated to Greenwood for the oil boom, OW and JB became getting richer, OW posting a reported net worth of $150,000 ($3.6 million adjusted for inflation). OW leveraged that fortune to launch a black Masonic lodge and employment agency while funding efforts to resist black voter suppression in the state.

Rejection within the African-American community

OW was eventually appointed as a sheriff’s deputy by the city of Tulsa, where he was in charge of policing the black population of Greenwood. But as OW grew more comfortable with the white establishment, many in Tulsa’s black community began to resent him. In fact, in the Black Star newspaper, its militant black editor AJ Smitherman pejoratively called OW “the king of little Africa”.

Nevertheless, white developers began to emulate OW and JB by buying plots of land north of the railroad tracks and reselling them to members of the black community. In 1905, a black doctor and a black dentist had opened practices there. The establishment of more schools, several hardware stores, and a Baptist church soon followed. All the while, segregation was increasing, with blacks converging on the north side of the railroad tracks, while whites converged on the south side.

When the Oklahoma Territory gained statehood in 1907, segregationist Democrats, led by white supremacist Bill “Alfalfa” Murray, passed laws that criminalized interracial marriage and barred black people from getting jobs. well paid. These injustices confirmed OW and JB’s decision to establish a black-centric community, where black men and women were protected from racial hostilities. If whites made racially threatening remarks, black residents of Greenwood often responded aggressively. For example, in 1909, JB was walking along Greenwood Avenue when a white delivery boy uttered a racial slur, prompting JB to throw the man to the ground, straddle him, and punch him in the face until he was dead. be bloodied. JB was criminally charged for the beating but was acquitted.

On another occasion, JB was kicked off a train in Oklahoma for sitting in the first class carriage, even though he had purchased a first class ticket. When asked to move to the car reserved for blacks, he refused to comply. He then sued to desegregate Tulsa’s trains, but was unsuccessful.

Greenwood thrives

As segregation deepened, the black business district of Greenwood prospered, primarily because residents funneled their shopping dollars back into the local economy while earning their income from white employers. This was possible because the migration of tankers to Tulsa created an increase in the demand for domestic help, which enabled black residents to access high-paying jobs as maids, drivers, gardeners, janitors, shoe shiners and porters. These workers often earned enough money to send their children to colleges like Columbia Law School, Oberlin College, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Spelman College, and Atlanta University, which positioned them for get white collar jobs after graduation.

Greenwood’s prosperity became legendary in black America, with Booker T. Washington dubbing it “Black Wall Street.”

Copyright © 2018 by Shomari Wills. Reprinted with permission from Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.