Greenwood’s history goes way back to the late 1800’s, even before Oklahoma was granted statehood. It all started when Alabama-born O.W. Gurley left for “Indian territory”, feeling there were better opportunities for him and his family there instead of Jim Crow-segregated Arkansas, where he was living. He initially bought land in what is now Perry, Oklahoma in 1893.
Oil production in Tulsa, just 80 miles away from Gurley, started just a few years later, in 1905. With the belief that there could be a prosperous black community in Tulsa, Gurley bought 40 acres of land in the northwestern part of the city, moved to Tulsa, started a grocery store, divided his land into commercial and residential areas and started mapping out a community he named “Greenwood”.
As Gurley expected, Greenwood began to grow. Seen as a place where black people could live and prosper without oppression and with economic opportunities they couldn’t access under Jim Crow laws, Greenwood’s population had climbed to about 9,000 by 1920. And Greenwood wasn’t just well-populated; it thrived.
With African-American entrepreneurs coming in to start businesses, and successful business owners frequently lending money and helping out new ones, soon there were hundreds of businesses in Greenwood. Some of the most well-known business owners were J.B. Stradford, who actually moved to Tulsa even before Gurley and eventually built the Stradford Hotel, a 54-suite luxury establishment that was the largest black-owned hotel in the US at the time; A.J. Smitherman, who founded the Greenwood-based newspaper Tulsa Star (there were actually two newspapers in Greenwood, despite its relatively small size); John and Loula Williams, who started out with a confectionery and later owned an auto-repair garage, office buildings and even built the Dreamland Theater, the state’s first black entertainment venue. John and Loula even bought Greenwood’s first car. Pilot Simon Berry started a taxi business with his own Ford Model T because the existing taxi lines serviced the white-only part of the city. He would later expand his service, purchasing new convertibles and even buses with a franchise to serve downtown Tulsa. He went on to found the US’s first ever black airline service and bought 13 acres of land and transformed them into a park with a swimming pool, ball parks and picnic grounds. American educator, author and orator Booker T. Washington called Greenwood the “Black Wall Street”.
Greenwood also housed its own hospital, several churches, a mason lodge, offices for hundreds of professionals including dentists, doctors and lawyers, beauty salons and its own high school, named after Booker T. Washington. The high school’s first principal was Ellis Walker Woods, who traveled 500 miles on foot from Memphis to Tulsa and served as principal for 35 years.
As is often the case, it all started with a false accusation. On May 30th, 1921, 19-year-old African-American shoe-shiner Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting (and raping) white teenager Sarah Page in an elevator she operated in the Drexel building, one of the only buildings in the white district of Tulsa that had a bathroom African-Americans could use. He was arrested on May 31st. That afternoon, the white-owned newspaper Tulsa Tribune published an article on the arrest, with editor Richard Lloyd Jones writing an incendiary editorial allegedly calling to lynch Rowland. With a crowd gathering in front of the county courthouse demanding the prisoner be handed over to them, a group of armed black men came down from Greenwood to help protect Rowland. When a white man tried to forcibly disarm an African-American WW1 veteran, a shot was fired. That was the spark that ignited years of tension, oppression and hatred that ended up with mobs of angry white people descending on Greenwood from the night of May 31st to the morning of June 1st, attacking black residents and burning down 35 city blocks in Greenwood. Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was considered the “most able Negro surgeon in America” by the Mayo brothers, was shot to death as he surrendered on his porch3. The riot ended up leaving some 300 dead, many more injured and around 9,000 people homeless in what has been described as the worst racial massacre in US history.
After the Riot, the Tulsa City Council passed an ordinance to prevent the black people of Tulsa from rebuilding Greenwood, rezoning the land from a residential district to a commercial one. Lawyer B.C. Franklin was the leader of the battle against that ordinance, suing the city of Tulsa before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He won the suit and Greenwood was rebuilt. By 1925 there were over a hundred more businesses in Greenwood.
But maybe one of the most notable aspects of the Tulsa Massacre is that, until recently, nobody was talking about it and hardly anybody even knew it happened. Even in Oklahoma, it was only added to school curriculums in 2002 almost as an afterthought and details about the prosperous Greenwood district and the remarkable people behind its creation and rebuilding weren’t brought into schools until as recently as 2019. Now, with the History Channel, ABC News, PBS, CNN, producer Tim Reid and filmmaker Dawn Porter each making a Black Wall Street documentary, maybe more people will be aware of Greenwood and what happened there a century ago. Both the good and the bad.
There are also several books written about the Tulsa Massacre, incuding Randy Krehbiel’s Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Masssacre (Oklahoma University Press, 2019), Tim Madigan’s The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921: The History of Black Wall Street, and its Destruction in America’s Worst and Most Controversial Racial Riot by World Changing History (2020), Charles River Editors’ The Tulsa Massacre of 1921: The Controversial History and Legacy of America’s Worst Race Riot (2020), Hannibal B. Johnson’s Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Eakin Press, 2007), Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (LSU Press, 1992) and Mrs. Mary E. Jones Parrish’s Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 originally published in 1923 with eyewitness accounts of the Massacre are all interesting reads.