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Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early 1900s

September 4, 2019 in History

By Alexis Clark

Greenwood Avenue featured luxury shops, restaurants, movie theaters, a library, pool halls and nightclubs.

Before the Tulsa Race Massacre where the Oklahoma city’s black district of Greenwood was attacked by a white mob, resulting in two days of bloodshed and destruction, the area had been considered one of the most affluent African American communities in the United States for the early part of the 20th century.

The massacre, which began on May 31, 1921 and left hundreds of black residents dead and 1,000 houses destroyed, often overshadows the history of the venerable black conclave itself. Greenwood District, with a population of 10,000 at the time, had thrived as the epicenter of African American business and culture, particularly on bustling Greenwood Avenue, commonly known as Black Wall Street.

Developed on Indian Territory

Founded in 1906, Greenwood was developed on Indian Territory, the vast area where Native American tribes had been forced to relocate, which encompasses much of modern-day Oklahoma. When unassigned lands became available for settlement during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, former slaves and freedmen fleeing racial oppression relocated to the region in search of a better life.

“Oklahoma begins to be promoted as a safe haven for African Americans who start to come particularly post emancipation to Indian Territory,” says Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

The largest number of black townships after the Civil War were located in Oklahoma. Between 1865 and 1920, African Americans founded more than 50 black townships in the state.

O.W. Gurley, a wealthy black land owner who participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush, purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, naming it Greenwood after the town in Mississippi.

The intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer St. of Greenwood before the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Built ‘For Black People, by Black People’

“Gurley is credited with having the first black business in Greenwood in 1906,” says Hannibal Johnson, author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. “He had a vision to create something for black people by black people.”

Gurley started with a boarding house for African Americans. Then word began to spread about opportunities for blacks in Greenwood and they flocked to the district.

“O.W. Gurley would actually loan money to people who wanted to start a business,” says Kristi Williams, vice chair of the African American Affairs Commission in Tulsa. “They …read more


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