Walking into History Down Black Wall Street 1921

One of the country’s major attractions during the first 6 months into 2021 will be a concentration on what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921. On that fateful day, the greatest accomplishment by Black Americans, Black Wall Street was destroyed by the hate that seems to be a part of White America. Writers and historians will concentrate their research on the violence that destroyed 33 blocks of Black businesses and homes as well as killing over 300 men, women, and children. But they will do so at the expense of what is the real value of that story. It is not the hate that destroyed it but the love that created it.

Over the past ten years of doing my research on the Black men and women who created that success, I have visited the city on five different occasions. The last time was on Juneteenth 2017 and once again I began my walk at Greenwood and Archer Avenues, but with this trip I walked right back in history to 1921.

Standing at the corner of Greenwood and Archer I look down the avenue and it is crowded busy with men, women, and children going in and out of the many stores.  I watch a group of ladies go into Lilly Johnson’s Liberty Café and I can read the menu for breakfast on the inside of the window:

“EARLY BREAKFAST SPECIAL-TWO EGGS, BACON AND BISCUIT 25 CENT”

A couple ladies are going into the Economy Drug Store, and two fathers with their sons disappear inside Elliott and Hooker’s Clothing Emporium. Still standing at the corner, I glance up at a long line of young men and women with roller skates over their shoulders, waiting to get into Osborne Monroe’s Skating Rink. The marque to the rink reads:

“WELCOME SKATERS ON MAID’S NIGHT OUT:
SPECIAL CHILDREN’S HOURS 11:00 TO 1:00 A.M. SATURDAYS.”

While standing on the corner right next to the Williams Confectionery, owned by Bill and Loula Williams, two extraordinarily successful Black entrepreneurs, I see parked right in front of the Confectionery the family luxury 1914 Chalmers Automobile. I later find out they are the first Blacks in the city to own an automobile and proudly drive it across the tracks into the white communities.

I step inside the confectionery and there are young people sitting at the many tables sipping on soft drinks, laughing, and joking.

At a table right in the middle of the Confectionery, two young adults are sitting. The young man gets up and walks over next to the girl. He pulls out a ring, gets on his knees and places the ring on her wedding finger. The girl hugs him and then holds her hand in the air so all can see the ring. The others stand and give them a round of applause.

I move on next door to the Dreamland Theater. The marquee reads:

TONIGHT’S FEATURE FILM:
“WITHIN OUR GATES, STARRING AN ALLSTAR COLORED CAST

AND RENOWNED ARTIST EVELYN PREER:
OSCAR MICHEAUX BOOK AND FILM PRODUCTION:
12 P.M. MATINEE: 8:00 P.M. FEATURE SHOWING:

I peek inside and all 800 seats are occupied by theater goers who love movies but do not have to accept the demeaning treatment by sitting in the balcony at white theaters across the tracks. Because the Dreamland Theater is owned by John and Loula Williams, the community can see a movie about them and for them and sit wherever they please.

I smile as I walk out of the theater and stroll further up Greenwood Avenue. I stop in front of the Tulsa Star building. It is owned by Andrew Smitherman a successful publisher of the local Black newspaper. He is able to print stories about his race and community because it is supported through advertising dollars of the many local businesses.

I pick up a copy of the most recent edition off the counter and read the headlines.

“Dr. W. E. B. DU BOIS, THE GREAT NEGRO LEADER TO SPEAK
AT THE WILLIAMS THEATER ON MARCH 22.”

At the very top of the front page to his paper, Smitherman displays in bold black letters his motto for all Blacks to adopt:  

“THE MOTTO Of EVERY NEGRO SHOULD BE YOU PUSH ME AND I’LL PUSH YOU.”

I walk out of the building with the paper tucked under my arm and next door I look into The Little Rose Beauty Salon, owned by Mabel Little. She has the lead chair, and three other beauticians have the other chairs. Behind them is a shelf with a jar sitting on it that reads, “Madam C. J. Walker’s Tetter Salve,” and another jar that reads, “Madam C. J. Walker’s Vegetable Shampoo.” It is Thursday afternoon, and as I step into the salon it is filled with young ladies who are in line to get their hair done. Thursday night in Greenwood Community is known as “Maid’s Night Out” because Friday is their day off and they get their party on that night. They all come to Mabel’s beauty salon because they admire her accomplishments. She is what you consider the matriarch of the Black Business Community. Young girls want to emulate her. She began as a maid like many of them, saved her money, and opened her own salon, and now is well respect throughout the community. If she and the other four hairdressers, who work for her must stay beyond the closing to make all these young ladies feel exceptionally good about themselves, that is exactly what they will do. Mabel smiles at me and continues to work on the young lady in her chair. I smile back and then make my exit.

I continue my stroll down Greenwood and pass by the law firm of B. C. Franklin, the father of the great historian John Hope Franklin who will write the definitive history of Black America. Lawyer Franklin is busy inside talking with some clients regarding their legal problems. I do not disturb them but continue walking and stop in front of an office building occupied by one of the greatest Negro surgeons in the country Dr. A. C. Jackson. I peek inside and there are several mothers sitting with their children who are coughing. I know the mothers are anxious to see Dr. Jackson so he can prescribe medicine for their sick children.

What I have seen makes me so proud I can burst with joy. But it is just the beginning and I am about to see much more of what my people can accomplish through love of their culture and themselves.

I now am standing in front of the Gurley Hotel, owned by one of the founders of Black Wall Street, O. W. Gurley. I look inside and see Emma, his wife, greeting some visitors to the city. Gurley arrived in Tulsa in 1906 and began to build living accommodations for the many Blacks arriving in the city to work for the rich white folks across the tracks but could not live over there. The Gurley Hotel is the first Black-owned in the city but is not the largest and most prestigious. That is across the street at the Stradford Hotel which I will soon reach on my journey along the streets of Black success.

As I continue up Greenwood toward Pine, I look over to my left toward Elgin Street and see the construction underway for the new Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Reverend R. A. Whittaker is talking with some of the construction workers. Under the leadership of Reverend Whittaker, the congregation was holding service in an old dance hall while donating money to build the new church. It was now early March, and it was due to open its doors in early April, and for what I could observe they were on time with their construction. It would eventually become one of the grandest church buildings in all of Tulsa and Oklahoma.

I now cross the street on Greenwood, and I am standing right in front of the most grandiose structure along Black Wall Street and that is the Stradford Hotel. I walk inside and I am immediately impressed with the lobby that has chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.  It is three-stories with 54 rooms for guests, with a dining hall, a billiards room, and a banquet room also featuring chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. I see the great Black Wall Street leader and its richest man, John Baptiste Stradford standing at the registration desk welcoming a large contingent of guests into the hotel. Stradford was born a slave in 1862, but with hard work and determination received a law degree from Indiana University in Indianapolis and arrived in Tulsa in 1906 the same year as Gurley. I eavesdrop on his conversation as he talks with his guests.

“I built this hotel so that our people could have a first-rate place to stay. A hotel that will rival any in the state of Oklahoma and for that matter anywhere in the country.  What we have accomplished here in Tulsa on our side of town was done, not just out of necessity but because we believed in each other. We believed that our best chance for success was by pooling our resources and working together and supporting each other’s businesses. That is exactly what we have done, and the result is all the magnificent businesses you will observe along Greenwood Avenue during your stay in our fine community.”

I finally end my walk into history back at Greenwood and Archer and immediately return to present day. That was a wonderful trip and in that noticeably short period of time, I saw Black America at its absolute best. What is amazing is that they achieved such outstanding accomplishments, while having to live in an oppressive system of government. I get in my rented automobile and head back to the airport but as I do, the words of Stradford resonate with me: “What we have accomplished here in Tulsa on our side of town was done, not just out of necessity but because we believed in each other.”

That is what was said and done by a small Black community between the years 1906 and 1921. And that is something to be celebrated as we approach the 100th year commemoration of the hate that invaded a community of love and tried to destroy it. However, the hate was not able to kill the love and of all our remembrance during Black History Month and throughout the year, let us remember Black Wall Street.

We Always Knew

The Founding Fathers

The assault on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. has shaken this country to its very core, except for Black Americans. White America has a tendency to moan, “Oh my God, that is not who we are.” But Black America knows that is exactly who you are. For the most part, White America has lived a myth. The idea that this country lives by high ideals and moral values has been a lie since its inception. The Founding Fathers were not idealists and moralists, they were pragmatic businessmen, more interested in maintaining the economic value of the slave system over freedom for the captives from another land.  The children of the Founding Fathers had no problem slaughtering the Native Americans while taking their land under some misguided assumption that it was their responsibility in order to bring civilization to the western lands of the country. They called those vicious acts the “White Man’s Burden” or “Manifest Destiny.” They had no problem running the Mexicans out of Texas in order to open that state to slavery.

Edmund Pettus Bridge

White America might argue those are the sins of the past, forgive their ancestors, and still maintain that this country has an exceptional democracy. But that is also not true. At best America has a flawed democratic system, seeking to reach perfection. That is what it had been in the past and that is what it is today. Those thousands of rioters that attacked the Capitol are not the exception to the rule but are a part of the mindset that makes this a flawed democracy. They are the children of generations of White Americans, who wreaked a torrid attack on Black Americans throughout the history of this country. While this bludgeoning of a people was carried out in the South and parts of the North, the rest of White America looked on and made that same statement, “That is not who we are.”

It must have been a harrowing experience for White America to watch as their Capitol was attacked by the vicious mob. It was, however, a harrowing experience for millions of Black Americans who watched the attack of their fellow brothers and sisters during the 1960s in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. It is a harrowing experience for Black Americans today as they watch racist policemen kill young Black men and women regularly in this country, only to have District Attorneys bring no charges against the killers.

Assault on the Capitol

As the great iconic Black leader Malcolm X said when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, now that the “Chickens have come home to roost,” maybe White America will better understand what one segment of this country has tolerated for years. Black America can empathize with your struggle to accept that these very same people, who have attacked us over the centuries are now attacking you. They have no loyalties but to their racist and xenophobic mentality. If it means taking out the elected officials of this country, they are very capable of carrying out such an act. We always knew and now you also know.