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8 Entrepreneurs Who Helped Build Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ Destroyed In 1921

Attorney B.C. Franklin (right) set up his law office in a tent after the Tulsa Race Riot. COURTESY/Tulsa Historical Society

 

In May 1921, 19-year-old Black shoeshiner Dick Rowland entered the Drexel building at 319 South Main Street to use the Blacks-only restroom which was on the top floor. The building had only one elevator, which was being operated by White teen Sarah Page. According to reports, Rowland accidentally slipped and fell on Page causing her to scream out of panic. A White clerk who witnessed the incident called the police, who later on arrested Rowland and charged him with assault even though Page refused to press any charges.

The incident was reported by a white-owned local newspaper calling for Rowland’s lynching. Rowland was processed and taken to court on May 31, 1921, however, tensions between the White mob who went to the courthouse to lynch Rowland and the Black residents who were also around to ensure his safety escalated into a 24-hour-long armed confrontation. A White mob eventually attacked and destroyed the properties of Black people living in Greenwood, which was then known as the “Black Wall Street” as it was home to highly successful and profitable Black-owned businesses. The incident did not only claim 300 lives but destroyed more than 1,200 homes.

Before the Greenwood district was established, African Americans had come to Oklahoma in the mid-1800s as slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes (that is the term used for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes), who were forcibly removed from their lands in the southeast part of the country, resettling in Oklahoma, which was then known as Indian Territory. By and by, the territory became a safe place for African Americans to settle. By the 1920s, more than 50 Black townships had been founded in Oklahoma, according to History.com.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the following Black people helped build wealth by establishing successful businesses that turned the city’s Greenwood district into “Black Wall Street.”

O.W. Gurley

Often referred to as the founder of Greenwood, O.W. Gurley was born to freed slaves in Alabama but he grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He moved to Oklahoma during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Gurley ran a general store in Perry, Oklahoma, before he moved to Tulsa. He bought 40 acres of land in the North of Tulsa and started his first real estate business, a boarding house that would become Greenwood Avenue. In addition to opening a grocery store, Gurley launched other businesses such as textile, tapestry, and furniture and also renamed his boarding house Gurley Hotel. Other properties he owned included a two-story building that housed the Masonic Lodge and a Black employment agency. Gurley later subdivided his plot into residential and commercial plots and also opened a grocery store. He sold the plots to only Blacks.

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Simon Berry

Greenwood’s black community was not allowed to use tax services so Simon Berry, a pilot, started his own with a Model-T Ford. He later started a bus service and founded his own airline charter for rich oilmen. Berry also owned a hotel and after the massacre, he built a park on 13 acres in the Greenwood District that came with a swimming pool, picnic grounds and a dance hall.

John and Loula Williams

Known as the first Black Tulsans to own a car, John and Loula Williams built the popular Williams Dreamland Theatre, which was known for its live performances and films before it was destroyed in the race massacre. Alongside the Dreamland Theatre, the Williams also owned a rooming house, a confectionary, commercial rental property and an auto repair garage.

J.B. Stradford

Before moving to Tulsa in 1899, Stradford was a Kentucky lawyer. He is known for building the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue, which was said to be the largest Black-owned hotel in the country, with 54 guest suites, a saloon and dining room, pool hall, among others. Before the hotel, Stratford, who was the son of former slaves, owned shoeshine parlors and boarding houses.

Mabel Little

When Little moved to Tulsa from Oklahoma in 1913, she had only $1.25 in her pocket. But she was good with hairstyling and that helped her build her hair salon — the Little Rose Beauty Salon. She thrived in the beauty business for years and survived the massacre. She died in 2001 at the age of 104.

Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish

She moved to Tulsa from Mississippi in 1919 and operated her own school where she taught typing and shorthand. Also a trained journalist, her first-hand account of the massacre and her escape, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” is being reprinted decades later, according to CNN.

A.J. Smitherman

He is best known for being the founder of The Tulsa Star—Tulsa’s first black newspaper and the first black daily newspaper in the nation. Smitherman spoke against discrimination via his paper and educated Blacks about their legal rights. Besides owning a newspaper, Smitherman was also an accomplished attorney, an entrepreneur, and a poet.

Buck Colbert Franklin

Black attorney Buck Colbert Franklin was among those who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And though he lost everything after the riots, he went on to help other victims. He set up his law office in a tent. From there, he helped defend Black victims after the Tulsa City Council passed an ordinance that prevented Black people from rebuilding their community. The city had plans of rezoning the area from a residential to a commercial district. Leading the legal battle against this ordinance, Franklin sued the city of Tulsa before the Oklahoma Supreme Court and won. Thanks to him, Black residents of Tulsa started rebuilding their burnt-down community.

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Written by PH

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