Greenwood, Okla.: The Legacy of the Tulsa Race Riot

In 1921, Greenwood, a successful, all-black enclave in Tulsa, was the site of the deadliest race riot in U.S. history. For the inhabitants of "the Black Wall Street," life would never be the same.

Editor’s note: Here’s the story of a sad chapter of American history, pulled from The Root‘s archives.

J.B. Stradford, the son of a freed Kentucky slave, rose to prominence in Oklahoma during the early 1900s as one of the key developers of the all-black Tulsa enclave Greenwood. A lawyer and businessman, Stradford owned the 65-room hotel that sat right in the heart of the thriving community that would later become known as “the Black Wall Street.”

But in a single day, all of that would change. On May 31, 1921, the arrest of a young black man on a questionable charge of assaulting a young white woman touched off the deadliest race riot in U.S. history. Whites charged through the community in retaliation, leaving an estimated 300 people dead, another 10,000 black residents homeless and 35 city blocks in ruin.

Stradford and 69 other black men were subsequently charged with inciting the riot. Stradford, however, jumped bail after his arrest and fled Tulsa for Kentucky. According to his great-granddaughter Laurel Stradford, his son (her grandfather), who was also a lawyer, used legal maneuvering to help his father avoid having to stand trial, including filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to keep him from being unlawfully detained.

“When I was a little girl, our grandmother used to tell us that J.B. had said that there was no greater gift that a man can be given than to have a son who saves his father’s life,” says Laurel Stradford. “There would be a lot of remembrance of my great-grandpa and the role he played in Tulsa, and the role my grandpa had in getting him free from being lynched.”

But although J.B. — who went on to run a successful law practice in Chicago — managed to avoid facing “justice” in Oklahoma (he never returned to the state), the charges hung over him until he died. The Stradford family fought to clear J.B., but it wasn’t until 1996 — 75 years after the riot, and six decades after his death in 1935 in Chicago at the age of 75 — that he was cleared of all charges. (Ultimately, none of the men indicted were convicted of anything.)

That 75th-anniversary year was also when the nation learned about the Tulsa Race Riot, which would come to be considered the most destructive race riot in U.S. history. “For years, silence engulfed this incident,” says Hannibal B. Johnson, author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood. “In 1921, Tulsa was booming, so anything that would detract from its allure, such as the riot, was minimized.”

Read on, or Learn About Other Black Towns Lost to History.

A Black Mecca

Indeed, Tulsa had been attracting thousands — blacks and whites — to the rich oil fields. By 1920, the overall population had swelled to more than 100,000 residents. Black Americans, migrating from Southern states as far as Georgia and Mississippi, were also attempting to escape the harsh realities of Southern racism.