• Greenwood: A Freedom Community

    After the end of slavery, the Oklahoma territory represented hope and opportunity for freed Blacks seeking a new beginning away from the oppressive Jim Crow laws of the South.

    As many of these Blacks traveled to Oklahoma, attracted by the prospect of acquiring land, some began to settle in and around the city of Tulsa. They started to build neighborhoods and open businesses in a part of the city north of the Frisco railroad tracks—an area that white residents took to calling “Little Africa.”

     

    Around the turn of the century, Black entrepreneur J.B. Stradford moved to Tulsa and began purchasing plots of land in North Tulsa that had been reserved for sale to “colored” buyers to resell to other Blacks who built residences and established stores, offices and banks. Stradford would go on to open the Stradford Hotel, a luxury establishment said to be the largest, finest Black-owned hotel in the country.

    In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a successful Black landowner from Arkansas, relocated to Tulsa and bought 40 acres of land, which he turned into residences, rooming houses, and the Vernon AME Church—the only building to survive the Massacre that still stands today. The rooming house was located on a road near the Frisco tracks, and that road was given the name Greenwood Avenue, which it still bears today.

     

    What is now Northeast Oklahoma (including the Tulsa area) was a particularly appealing location for African-Americans in the late 1800’s and early 1900s because there were thousands of land owning Black Native Americans who had been living as free and independent first class citizens within what was then Creek and Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory for more than fifty years before Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

    GREENWOOD & THE RISE OF BLACK WALL STREET

    Before long, the entire community was simply known as Greenwood. Bordered by Cincinnati Street on the west, Lansing Street on the east, Pine Street to the north, and Archer Street and the railroad tracks to the south, Greenwood at its zenith was home to about 11,000 people and was one of the most affluent, culturally vibrant and prosperous Black communities in the country—leading to its nickname, “Black Wall Street.”

     

    As Scott Ellsworth wrote in his book Death in a Promised Land: The Race Massacre Report of 1921, “The community counted two black schools...one black hospital, and two black newspapers...thirteen churches and three fraternal lodges...plus two black theaters and a black public library...Along Detroit Avenue and certain other streets were the neat, sturdy homes of some of those black Tulsans who owned businesses lining Greenwood Avenue, augmented by the houses of the city’s black professional class.”

     

    Black Wall Street was so admired that after a visit, the great Dr. W.E.B. Dubois stated, “I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa. The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations and have made money in oil.” The district was home to numerous lawyers, doctors, and other Black professionals, and was so economically self-sufficient that it was believed that a dollar spent by a Greenwood resident circulated within the community about fifty times before it left the community to be spent somewhere else.

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