Ottowa W. Gurley (aka O.W.) was a turn-of-the-twentieth-century black educator, entrepreneur, and landowner, who was born to former enslaved Africans. In 1889, after resigning from a position he held with the Grover Cleveland presidential administration, O.W. moved from his home state of Arkansas to Perry, Oklahoma, in order to participate in the Oklahoma Land Grab of 1889. With his wife Emma, he later relocated to Tulsa to seize economic opportunities resulting from the city’s multiracial population boom. Once there, O.W. purchased a 40-acre tract of undeveloped land, where he built a grocery store on a dirt road that ran just north of the train tracks traversing the city.

O.W. later forged a partnership with fellow black businessman John the Baptist Stradford (aka J.B.), with whom he shared a general distrust of white people. Both men chose to go by their initials instead of their first names. This action was a form of silent protest because men in the South were customarily addressed by their surnames, while boys were called by their first names. Sadly, black adult males were often addressed by their first names by white men as a form of emasculation. By using their initials, O.W. and J.B. circumvented this practice.

O.W. and J.B. occasionally held divergent opinions. For example, while O.W. subscribed to the philosophies of African American educator Booker T. Washington, J.B. favored the more radical views of civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Despite their differences, the pair worked in lockstep to develop an all-black district in Tulsa. They subdivided the land into housing zones, retail lots, alleys, and streets, all of which were exclusively available to other African Americans who were fleeing lynchings and other racial horrors.

The Origin of Greenwood

After O.W. built several square two-story brick boarding houses near his grocery store, he called the street on which these structures sat Greenwood Avenue, after the Mississippi town from which many of his early residents hailed. Before long, the entire area became known as Greenwood, which soon became the site for a school, as well as an African Methodist Episcopal Church. But O.W.’s crowning project was the Gurley Hotel, whose high quality rivaled that of the finest white hotels in the state.

As hundreds of African Americans emigrated to Greenwood for the oil boom, O.W. and J.B. became increasingly wealthy, with O.W. boasting a reported net worth of $150,000 ($3.6 million adjusted for inflation). O.W. leveraged this fortune to launch a black Masonic lodge and an employment agency, while bankrolling efforts to resist black voter suppression in the state.

Pushback Within the African American Community

O.W. was eventually appointed as a sheriff’s deputy by the city of Tulsa, where he was responsible for policing the black population in Greenwood. But as O.W. became increasingly cozy with the white establishment, many members of Tulsa’s black community began to resent him. In fact, in the Black Star newspaper, its militant black publisher A.J. Smitherman pejoratively referred to O.W. as “The King of Little Africa.”

Ottowa W. Gurley (front row, second from left) with Greenwood founders.

Nevertheless, white developers began to emulate O.W. and J.B., by purchasing plots of land located north of the railroad tracks, then selling plots back to members of the black community. By 1905, a black doctor and a black dentist had launched practices there. The creation of more schools, several hardware stores, and a Baptist church soon followed. Throughout this time, segregation was increasing, as blacks converged to the north side of the train tracks, while whites converged to the south side.

When the Oklahoma territory achieved statehood in 1907, segregationist Democrats, led by the white supremacist Bill “Alfalfa” Murray, passed laws that criminalized interracial marriage and prohibited blacks from obtaining high-wage jobs. These injustices affirmed O.W. and J.B.’s decision to establish a black-centric community, where black men and women were shielded from racial hostilities. If white people made threateningly racist remarks, Greenwood’s black residents often responded aggressively. For example, in 1909, J. B. was walking along Greenwood Avenue when a white deliveryman uttered a racist insult, prompting J.B. to throw the man to the ground, straddle him, and punch his face until it was bloody. J.B. was criminally charged for the beating, but was acquitted.

On a separate occasion, J.B. was kicked off a train in Oklahoma for sitting in the first-class car, even though he purchased a first-class ticket. When he was asked to move to the black-only car, he refused to comply. He later filed a lawsuit, in an effort to desegregate Tulsa’s trains, but was unsuccessful.

As segregation grew stronger, Greenwood’s black business district thrived, mainly because residents fed their purchasing dollars back into the local economy, while earning their incomes from white employers. This was possible because the migration of oilmen to Tulsa created a spike in demand for domestic help, which enabled black residents to attain high-paying labor jobs as maids, chauffeurs, gardeners, janitors, shoe shiners, and porters. These workers often earned enough money to send their children to universities like Columbia Law School, Oberlin College, the Hampton Institute, the Tuskegee Institute, Spelman College, and Atlanta University, which positioned them to secure white color jobs after graduation.

Greenwood's prosperity became legendary in black America, with Booker T. Washington dubbing it “Black Wall Street."

From Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills. Copyright © 2018 by Shomari Wills. Reprinted by permission of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.