What We Lost In the Fire: Black Wall Street Before the Tulsa Race Massacre

June 3, 1921: Injured and wounded men are being taken to hospital by National guardsmen after racially motivated riots, also known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which a mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla.
June 3, 1921: Injured and wounded men are being taken to hospital by National guardsmen after racially motivated riots, also known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which a mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla.
Photo: Hulton Archives (Getty Images)

By any measure, John W. Rogers is a success story.

He grew up on the South Side of Chicago and started trading stocks when he was 12. He attended Princeton and played on an Ivy League champion basketball team while studying economics. In 1983, he raised $10,000 from friends and family and started Ariel Capital Management, a money management firm. He even helped with the funding of one of his homeboy’s political campaigns–some dude named Barack Obama. Ariel Investments now manages billions in capital for clients from Walmart to Pepsi. Rogers sits on the board of directors of Nike, McDonald’s and the New York Times Company.

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If Rogers’ bio sounds like the epitome of the American dream, it is not. While he is the kind of success story white people use to prove that this country allows opportunity for all, Rogers’ success doesn’t disprove the existence of systemic white supremacy. He made it to the top despite the racism he incurred. There were Black men and women who built empires, only to have them stolen by white supremacist violence of Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

What was destroyed in the domestic terrorism incident starting on May 31, 1921, can never be regained. But it was much more than just businesses and money. It impacted an entire race of people forever.

Four Black newspapers, the only Black hospital and countless businesses were burned to the ground during the white rampage. Professor Alicia Odeale estimates the losses at $50-100 million and most insurance claims were never paid out, as insurance companies were not responsible for “riots,” according to the Harvard study, After The Burning: The Economic Effects of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Those flames consumed more than the fortunes of the wealthy. No one knows how many people were killed, who earned wages for their families but there were 20 Black physicians, 68 teachers and eight attorneys living in Tulsa the year before the massacre. Some of the other businesses included:

  • Four grocery stores, including Bakers Grocery and the North Greenwood Grocery Store and the Tip Top Grocery Store
  • Ferguson’s Drug Store
  • The Colored Insurance Association
  • The Pig Bond Taxi Line
  • 10 tailor shops
  • At least five restaurants
  • A furniture store
  • A chiropractor’s office
Illustration for article titled What We Lost In the Fire: Black Wall Street Before the Tulsa Race Massacre
Image: Tulsa Star

But, while the historical narratives often focus on the commercial district, Tulsa’s revolutionary economic model was not primarily about business ownership. Author Scott Ellsworth notes that “the vast majority of Greenwood’s adults were neither businessmen nor businesswomen, but worked long hours, under trying conditions, for white employers.”

Still, the average income, the employment rate and the wealth of Black Oklahomans was higher than the national average. Oklahoma’s Jim Crow laws allowed Blacks to patronize white-owned businesses. But in Tulsa, Black workers spent the vast majority of their money in Black businesses, even the ones who worked for white employers. And while the rate of white owner-occupied homes has historically averaged 20 percentage points higher than Black homeownership in Tulsa, the Black-to-white gap in homeownership was only five points (30 percent for Black Tulsans versus 35 percent for whites). By contrast, in 1920, the Black homeownership rate was 22.5 percent while 48.3 percent of whites owned homes. Part of the reason was that real estate developers such as magnate O.W. Gurley bought plots of land and refused to sell to whites. And, in America, homeownership is the primary driver of wealth.

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During the terrorist event, 1,256 homes were razed and another 215 were looted.

Take John W. Williams, for instance. Williams learned his trade as a repairman at the white-owned Thompson Ice Cream Company. He was paid so well that he purchased the first car in Greenwood. His talent for fixing things was so prodigious that, by the time the automobile boom exploded, Williams was the only mechanic Tulsa’s white people would trust with their cars. But they had to come to his auto mechanic shop at 420 Archer Street in Greenwood. And of course, while they were there, they often stopped at Loula’s, to get some of William’s wife’s famous candied confectionaries.

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What did they do with that money? Loula opened a theatre that staged plays and musicals. It was so successful that she opened Dreamland, Greenwood’s first Black movie theater, which was larger than the whitest theater in town. It became so successful that whites would sneak into the Black theater. Not only had Williams had taken his ice cream talent to Greenwood, but he was bringing white money to the Black district!

...Until white rioters burned Loula and John’s businesses to the ground.

Black school attendance rates and literacy, once higher than similar and surrounding cities, declined after the massacre. The Black unemployment rate in nearby cities rose, as Black Tulsans migrated to other areas. Even the people who survived the massacre suffered, as The Atlantic points out:

Earnings steadily declined for Black household heads in Tulsa from 1920 to 1930 to 1940. How do we know that this decrease was due to the massacre and not simply changing local or national conditions? History is not a laboratory, with controlled experiments. But in a control group of similar cities—such as Oklahoma City; Wichita, Kansas; and Little Rock, Arkansas—the earnings of Black residents remained roughly constant over the same 20-year period, despite the ravages of the Great Depression. In 1920, wages of Black household heads were 9 percent higher in Tulsa than in our set of 14 control cities; by 1940, they were 7 percent lower. Meanwhile, white Tulsans’ wages followed the same pattern as in the control cities—roughly constant from 1920 to 1930 before modestly declining from 1930 to 1940. And throughout the 20 years, white wages were higher in Tulsa than in the control cities.

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There’s one other story we should tell:

In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, an enslaved man named Caesar traveled with his master from Woodford County, Ky. to Stratford, Ontario. The slavemaster had no fear that Caesar would try to escape. After all, the family treated Caesar well, allowing him to spend hours with their white daughter. During the trip, Caesar went to his owner with a surprising announcement:

“I’m free now.”

Apparently, Caesar had been learning to read and had heard of a document called the “Emancipation Proclamation.” After he was free, Caesar changed his name to Julius Caesar Stradford, improved his reading, worked and saved his money. He returned to Kentucky and purchased his family’s freedom, including his 3-year-old son, John the Baptist Stradford (J.B. Stradford).

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J.B. Stradford graduated from Oberlin and Indiana Law School and eventually moved to Tulsa, Okla., where he began working as a civil rights attorney while investing in rental property in the Black section of town. In 1906, Booker T. Washington visited the community (then called “Little Africa”) and was impressed by what he called “The Black Wall Street of America.” Washington told Stradford and other business leaders about the 4,000-acre all-Black business community that he had built in Tuskegee with Tuskegee Institute’s first agriculture teacher C.W. Greene. The residents loved the idea. In 1906, the community was formally organized under the same name as Tuskegee’s Black business district–Greenwood.

On June 1, 1918, at 301 Greenwood Ave., Stradford opened the largest Black-owned and operated hotel in America. The luxurious Stradford Hotel boasted 54 “modern living rooms,” a gambling hall, a saloon and a pool hall. Across the street sat the Commodore Cotton Club, also owned by Stradford. By 1920, the real estate magnate, lawyer and hotelier was the richest Black man in the state of Oklahoma.

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...Until June 1, 1921.

When a white outrage sparked the Tulsa Race Massacre, Stradford stood outside of his hotel with a rifle until he was overcome by the white mob. After white supremacists burned the 34-block Black district, Stradford was arrested and charged with inciting the riot. He fled town after his son posted bail and landed in Chicago. As a fugitive, he fought extradition until he died in 1935. A jury eventually cleared J.B. Stradford of all charges.

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...In 1996.

The Tulsa Race Massacre is not a thing that happened to some people in Oklahoma. It happened to us. I don’t know anyone in Pearl Harbor. I didn’t have a family member in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. But when we speak about those incidents, we refer to them as attacks on America. “This country.” Us.

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Stradford never regained his fortune and his children were robbed of that generational wealth. In the subsequent generations, they managed to rebuild their reputations as community activists and civil servants. But imagine what they could have contributed to the civil rights movement or Black people’s struggle for equality.

There is no need to speculate whether or not Stradford’s descendants would have lost the fortune; there is proof of their financial prowess.

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J.B. Stradford was John W. Rogers’ great-great-grandfather.

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World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

DISCUSSION

amessagetorudy
BedandBreakfastMan

Not sure if this was included in the article (checked the links) but the NYT had a pretty devastating and dramatic graphic article about the Massacre.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html?fbclid=IwAR0oBfAOX51SyKtg-7voq8EPWWCyJvwE5scTgqND51q42w0yXRI8qFdg6ZY