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.”
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.
But old Jim Crow laws followed them northwest. Tulsa was divided into two cities. Whites held court in the southern end of the city, closer to the larger main downtown area, while African Americans were segregated in the northern section of town.
The racial split, however, gave rise to black Tulsans’ famed entrepreneurial mecca. Anchored by Greenwood Avenue, black-owned businesses stretched along the more than mile-long roadway. They included grocery stores, restaurants, medical and law offices, and two newspapers. Many black entrepreneurs in addition to Stradford — including real estate developer and Greenwood founder O.W. Gurley — thrived and reached regional and even national stature. Booker T. Washington, who had lectured in Tulsa, was the first to call Greenwood “the Negro’s Wall Street.” That moniker later became “the Black Wall Street.”
Many white Tulsans, who referred to the district as “Little Africa,” were not happy about the growth and prosperity of the community, according to Andrew Rosa, assistant professor of history at Oklahoma State University. “You had a pretty stable, upwardly mobile people in Greenwood, and the city’s whites had their eye on Greenwood,” says Rosa. “That was sort of the spirit of the friction.”
White Rage Unleashed
The underlying racial and economic tension finally boiled over on May 30, 1921. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoe shiner in downtown Tulsa, had gone to use the only bathroom for blacks, located at the top of an office building. He crossed paths with white elevator operator Sarah Page, 17, whom a store clerk claimed to have heard scream. The clerk said that he found a distraught Page and saw a young black man running from the building. There is no record of what Page told the police.
Rowland was arrested but never charged. The incident, however, made the front page of the Tulsa Tribune — along with an editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
Right before dawn on June 1, a mob of nearly 10,000 white men launched an all-out assault on the Greenwood District, systematically burning down every home and business. They dropped firebombs and shot at blacks from planes that had been used in World War I. Those blacks who were captured were held in internment camps around the city by the local police and National Guard units.
Martial law was eventually declared. The National Guard confirmed that 37 blacks and whites were killed, although historians (pdf) have put that number at closer to 300. Many of the dead black Americans were buried in unmarked graves around town, and some were laid to rest in an anonymous section of Tulsa’s Oak Lawn cemetery. Some photographers made their pictures of the dead into postcards.
The riot “just shows you how irrelevant, not only from the view of Oklahoma but that of the nation as a whole, black life was. It was seen as expendable,” says Rosa.
After the riot, black Tulsans, who were living in tents and forced to wear green identification tags in order to work downtown, still managed to turn the tragedy into triumph. Without state help, they rebuilt Greenwood, and by 1942 the community had more than 240 black-owned businesses.
In subsequent decades, however, the community declined as the pioneers of Greenwood died and many of their descendants moved away. The district struggled most critically during the 1960s as Tulsa became more integrated, which led to a decline in the Greenwood population and also undermined many of the local black family-run businesses. In the 1970s, a large segment of Greenwood was demolished to make way for an interstate highway that became a main connector for the downtown area.
An Oklahoma state commission conducted an investigation of the riot from 1997 to 2001, questioning survivors about that day back in 1921. The commission recommended specific reparations to the community, the living survivors and their descendants.
The state did subsequently enact a law in June 2001 that provided about 300 scholarships for descendants, developed a memorial and pushed for development in Greenwood — but the law fell far short of what the commission had recommended. The remaining survivors have continued to fight for further restitution, which is addressed in the 2008 documentary Before They Die!
For some descendants, the demise of such a prosperous business community highlights the struggles that black America continues to face today. “The difference is that our society now is desegregated much more, and the challenge now is for our businesses to do successful business with a majority of firms,” says John Rogers Jr., the founder of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, LLC — and the great-grandson of J.B. Stradford. “There’s still a remnant of historical discrimination.”
Monée Fields-White is a Chicago-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.