Black History Month: The Rise of Black Wall Street's Greenwood District

Between 1905 and 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma became one of the most affluent Black communities in the United States.  Greenwood, often referred to as “Black Wall Street,” was a largely self-contained community that boasted its own luxury hotels, restaurants, theaters, banks, hospitals, schools, and public transit system.  Its rapid rise made Greenwood a beacon of hope to Black people throughout the southern United States, many of whom left their homes and traveled to Tulsa to take advantage of the opportunities that Greenwood promised.

On the surface, it seems almost impossible that a community like Greenwood should have existed. When Oklahoma officially became a state in 1907, legislators imposed many of the same legal restrictions on Black Americans found in other southern states.  However, this divisive legislation had the opposite effect than intended.

Land: The Foundation of Black Wall Street

Eager to encourage more people to settle in Oklahoma, the U.S. government began selling land at very low prices. Many Black Americans living across the southern United States scraped together money to purchase plots, hoping to make new and better lives for themselves and their families.  One future settler was O.W. Gurley, who participated in the Land Rush of 1893.  He and his wife left Arkansas, bought land in the town of Perry, Oklahoma,  and opened a successful general store.

In 1905, Gurley sold his land and store and used the proceeds to buy 40 acres of near-vacant lots on the north side of Tulsa.  Thanks to the oil industry, Tulsa was a thriving town and many Black Americans migrated there for new opportunities and in an effort to escape the harsh discrimination and oppression they suffered throughout the rest of the southern United States.  In 1906, Gurley opened the first business on his land in Tulsa–a rooming house that became an immediate success.  He divided the rest of his land into residential and commercial lots and began selling them to other African Americans who came to Oklahoma in search of opportunity.  He opened several more businesses and began loaning money to others who wanted to do the same.  

Gurley prospered and so did many of the other Greenwood district residents.   J.B. Stradford opened the largest Black-owned hotel in the country.  It boasted 54 guest suites, a pool hall, saloon, and a grand dining room.  A.J. Smitherman founded and ran the community’s newspaper, The Tulsa Star, while Simon Berry operated the district’s first taxi before starting a bus company and a charter plane service.  John and Loula Williams were some of the wealthiest Black people in Tulsa, thanks to their ownership of a rooming house, a confectionery, a garage, and the Dreamlight Theater, as well as their investments in other residential and commercial properties.

A Thriving Community

In 1907, Oklahoma officially became America’s 46th state.  Almost immediately, the first new state legislature passed laws similar to those in other Southern states—laws that enforced segregation between races and legal restrictions on Black Americans.  Ironically, these laws actually benefited the businesses of Greenwood because they encouraged black men and women to stay—and spend—within their own communities.  As Greenwood grew, more businesses opened to provide essential goods and services to its residents. 

Greenwood attracted and served more than just its residents. People from other districts would frequently travel there to get access to products and services not available to the black community in other areas.  Black Wall Street stands as a testament to what people can accomplish when they come together, even under the most challenging circumstances.  From its origins in 1906 to its zenith in 1921, Greenwood grew from a single-rooming house to a thriving community that was able to sustain, support, entertain, and enrich its residents.  Though they are no longer with us, CAVU Securities is proud to honor the brave men and women who built Black Wall Street.  #blackwallstreet, #blackhistorymonth, #blackhistorymonth2023.

(References: Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, The History Channel, and another History Channel article.  Photo courtesy of Tulsa Historical Society and Museum)