While growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s in America we, as Black young men and women, were always told that in order to make it in this country we had to be twice as good as the European Americans. Equal opportunity existed only within the framework of that European American community, and we certainly were not allowed inside. If our plight was difficult in the 60’s, you can imagine how difficult it was for Blacks living at the turn of the century, and had been out of slavery for less than fifty years. Not only did they have to be twice as good but at least ten times as good just to succeed, and had to be geniuses to build successful businesses. One of those geniuses was John B. Stradford, the richest Black man on Black Wall Street in 1921. His luxurious 54 room Stradford Hotel, located on the famous Greenwood Avenue, was evidence of his brilliance as a businessman. The Stradford Hotel, trimmed in press brick above the windows and stone slabs below, was considered the finest Black owned hotel in the country and even rivaled some of the white owned hotels in Oklahoma. Gorgeous chandeliers hung from the ceilings in the lobby and in the banquet room. The hotel had a pool room for the enjoyment of the guests, a dining hall for the eating pleasure of the guests and a salon for the relaxation of the guests. It was first class all the way. According to Stradford, his structure matched the Hotel Tulsa, “the finest building in the southwest.” He also owned fifteen rental houses and an apartment building.
Stradford, the son of an escaped slave Julius Caesar Stradford, received his law degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and migrated to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1899. He, along with another businessman, O. W. Gurley, set their sights on building a community that would bring tremendous pride to all that lived there. Stradford believed that Blacks in 1921, had the best chance for success in a racist country if they pooled their resources, worked together and supported one another’s businesses. Spending within their own community would create self-sufficiency and allow them to achieve some independence. His genius was so timely and his strategy so successful in building an independent commercial business sector along Greenwood Avenue, that when Booker T. Washington visited there, he named it “Negro Wall Street,” which has now been changed to Black Wall Street.
Stradford’s genius set the example for many other Blacks who followed after him into the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. O. W Gurley, who also owned the Gurley Hotel; John and Loula Williams who owned the Dreamland Theater with over seven hundred seats for movie goers as well as the Williams Confectionary, a place where young lovers met for cool drinks on hot days. They claim more engagements were made in that Confectionary than in the churches. There was also Mabel Little’s famous beauty parlor and her husband Pressley’s Little Bell Café, famous for its smothered chicken and rice. The luncheon special was such a delicacy, that the whites put aside their racist attitudes to make it over to the café during lunch time. When Dr. W. E. B. DuBois visited Black Wall Street in March 1921, he marveled at the number of successful businesses along Greenwood Avenue. Much of that success was due to John B. Stradford’s determination to establish a financially independent community.
When I first began my research to write my historical novel, Fires of Greenwood: Tulsa Riot of 1921, I was immediately impressed with John Stradford and disturbed because I had never read about him in the history books. What impressed me besides his tremendous success as a businessman, and why he should be a hero to all Black America, was his dogged determination to never bow down or be subservient to anyone white. He refused to accept Booker T. Washington’s accommodationists approach that he preached to Blacks as the best way to get along with whites. In fact, Stradford would be considered an admirer of Dr. Du Bois’s fiery protest approach to oppose racism. One time a white man riding in an ice wagon made a remark that he considered offensive. Stradford snatched the man down from the wagon and pounded him until he fell to the ground. He began to pummel the man until John Williams ran out of the Dreamland Theater and pulled him off the beaten victim. The white fellow ran off pledging there would be a lynching that night in Tulsa. Williams volunteered to drive Stradford to Muskogee until it all passed over. But Stradford refused to go. That “bull dog of a man,” as he was called by friends, refused to back down to anyone. When the bombing and destruction of all the buildings on Greenwood began on June 1, 1921, Stradford refused to abandon his hotel and stood out front with his gun waiting for the mob to show up. Unfortunately, he was unable to save his hotel and the sacrifice and work he put into building it went up in fire and smoke, as the bombs dropped from airplanes not only destroyed his hotel but all the buildings along Greenwood in a thirty-four-block area.
After it was all over, a Grand Jury indicted John Stradford as one of the instigators of the riot. Nothing was further from the truth. In fact, he attempted to mediate with the officials in Tulsa to prevent the confrontation. But once he realized that was not going to happen, he was determined to protect what he owned. Given the nature of white folk’s mentality at that time, it is not surprising that they attempted to blame a Black man, who stood up to them and refused to bow down, as a trouble maker. Also, Stradford was a very successful and rich Black man who, through his financial independence, was able to fight back against racism, and that is a lesson Black folks today could learn from him.
But that is probably the reason when they ultimately make a movie on what happened on June 1, 1921, John Stradford will not play a major role, and definitely will not be portrayed as a hero. He is, however, a hero to his ancestors and others that know of him, including me. Laurel Stradford his great-great granddaughter told me, “I feel very blessed and honored to be part of a family that has such a rich background. It is what gave me and the other members of the family the foundation to become successful and pleased with who we are, and the great tradition we represent.” Someday in the future, maybe all Black America will know what the family knows of this great man, and it will serve as an inspiration to the entire race. That can only happen if we all are vigilant about how Black Wall Street is covered in a future movie or in a television series. We owe it to the hard work and sacrifice that men like John B. Stradford, a genius who beat the odds, and helped to give meaning to our rich and valuable history.