America plunged into a state of mass hysteria following the brutal death of George Floyd. George Floyd’s death, along with the untimely deaths of other unarmed black civilians by police, sparked civil unrest all across the country. While America is experiencing a time of unity, as all 50 states actively participated in the movement, Americans are divided on protesting. Reports of protests turning violent sparked the conversation of a piece of hidden black history known as Black Wall Street. Once a prosperous black community in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Black Wall Street was destroyed by white mobs in what historians call the most violent day in Tulsa’s history.
Origins of Greenwood
Ottowa W. Gurley, also known as O.W. , was a black educator, landowner, and entrepreneur in the early twentieth century. After resigning from his job with the Grover Cleveland presidential administration, Gurley moved from Arkansas to Perry, Oklahoma to take part in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. In 1906, Gurley and his wife relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he purchased 40 acres of land only to be sold to other blacks.
With his business partner J.B. Stradford, Gurley built a slew of businesses, with one of the first being a rooming house. Other businesses that followed included grocery stores, drug stores, law and doctors offices, cafes, schools, the Stradford Hotel, and the Mount Zion Baptist Church to name a few.
In addition, Gurley built three two-story buildings and five residencies. He named this strip Greenwood after the Mississippi city many of Gurley’s residents came from. Many black Mississippi citizens fled racial persecution and flocked to Greenwood in search of a better life. Greenwood’s location segregated the district’s black residents from the white residents outside, allowing Greenwood’s citizens to primarily put money back into their own community.
Gurley was a firm advocate for supporting black businesses to build economic growth. While black business began booming, Gurley continued to build his dream of achieving widespread black wealth. He purchased real estate and sold exclusively to black people. Soon, many blacks began to follow Gurley’s business model, lifting Greenwood to new financial heights. Gurley’s vision for a successful black community came true as Greenwood became known for its economic prosperity, causing fellow black educator Booker T. Washington to dub the district Black Wall Street.
Then, on June 1, 1921, Gurley’s dream was tragically cut short during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
On May 30, Dick Rowland, a young black man, rode in an elevator with a white woman named Sarah Page. For reasons unknown to this day, with varying accounts, the young woman screamed and Rowland fled the scene. Rumors of sexual misconduct began circulating in white communities all over Tulsa. Despite the lack of evidence, police arrested Rowland the next day.
White civilians surrounded the courthouse where Rowland was held after a sensationalized article in the Tulsa Tribune. The residents of Black Wall Street came to greet them.
While the sheriff and his men tried to protect Rowland’s floor, shots fired. The residents from Black Wall Street retreated back home. Little did they know that the white mob would be trailing close behind.
According to an official Race Riot Commission, floods of white civilians stormed Black Wall Street and burned, looted, and destroyed businesses. The report states that civil officials armed white civilians and made them deputies. The Oklahoma National Guard also detained the black Greenwood residents as opposed to the white vigilantes.
At the end of the destruction, 35 city blocks lay in ruins, 1,256 residencies were destroyed, and about 800 people were hospitalized. While only 36 deaths were confirmed at the time, historians say that at least 300 civilians were murdered.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre left Black Wall Street’s residents practically homeless, despite the reparation efforts made by the American Red Cross. According to Gurley’s financial accounts, the once-wealthy businessman lost over $200,000 after the massacre. He was never able to reclaim the wealth he built from the ground up. Defeated, Gurley moved to Los California, dropped off the grid, and, for a long time, out of black history.
As America continues to fight against racial injustice, one way to stay educated is to dig deep to unbury the hidden histories of black history.