Dr. Michael Carter, Sr. has been working to bring about this kind of support for a long time. In 1998, the theologian founded Black Wall Street USA, a nonprofit that seeks to establish urban economic districts and commercial centers where at least 50 percent of businesses are owned by Black people. BWSUSA to date has established 48 such districts for in the U.S. and abroad.
Carter was inspired to launch his organization by an entrepreneur named Ottawa "O.W." Gurley. In the early 1900s, Gurley played a pivotal role in transforming Tulsa's Greenwood District into the first "Black Wall Street" by launching and running many of Greenwood's businesses, offering loans to open new businesses, and even turning over ownership of some of his established businesses to other community members.
It was important to Gurley to help other Black people achieve economic independence, says Carter. "The importance of what he did was to sustain and solidify the area for the long haul for Black entrepreneurs. He was a visionary in that regard."
A Serial Entrepreneur
Born in Huntsville, Alabama, to freed slaves in 1868, Gurley was a man of many hats. Before landing in Tulsa, he was a minister, a landowner in the deep south, an educator, a U.S. Post Office employee, a member of President Grover Cleveland's administration, and, of course, an entrepreneur.
In 1905, after oil had been discovered in Red Fork--a small town south of Tulsa--Gurley and his childhood sweetheart packed up their homestead and general store in nearby Perry, Oklahoma, where they'd lived since 1893. They joined the thousands of Americans racing to soak up the opportunities created by the oil boom--which would later give birth to thousands of family businesses and a growing middle class in the region.
According to Randy Krehbiel, a Tulsa World writer and author who created the newspaper's Tulsa Race Massacre archive, it's a commonly held belief (though impossible to confirm with incomplete property records) that Gurley bought roughly 40 acres on the northeast side of the city. Krehbiel says Gurley resolved to sell those plots solely to Black settlers. His first real estate venture was a boarding house to support the growing number of Black people migrating from the South. The census of 1920 reported 8,878 African Americans living in Tulsa. By 1921, that number was almost 11,000.
The boarding house eventually became the Gurley Hotel, and Gurley launched new businesses to support it--including a textile, tapestry, and furniture business that drew international interest. This was a pattern Gurley would repeat--when he saw a need, he tended to fill it, becoming a supplier for other businesses in the area, and starting new businesses to support his ventures. "Out of the 600 businesses in Tulsa, Gurley owned at least 100 as a result of demand and need," Carter says.
Whatever the community needed, Carter says, they could buy right there on their own blocks. And because of segregation, many Black folks worked on the White side of town, then came back and spent their money in Greenwood, strengthening the district's economy: "You had the wealthy, middle class, the poor all living on the same block, and so many of those individuals who started out in the working class, because they lived there, would eventually go on to own their own business," Carter says. "That's a result of Gurley's contributions."
In other parts of the country, researchers note, some Black people were still living under slavery conditions by another name: peonage. That refers to the situation in which many freed slaves found themselves trapped in a cycle of labor without pay to work off debts.
The working opportunities Gurley and others like him afforded people of color in Tulsa were highly unusual, says Krehbiel, adding that "in a place like Greenwood, you could go out and make a living wage. If you didn't like who you worked for, you could go down the street and work for someone else--[there] was a certain amount of freedom that other places didn't have."
For 15 years, Gurley helped build a town where Black families could afford to own private planes and play grand pianos in their living rooms. Gurley envisioned economic districts like Greenwood throughout Oklahoma in historically Black townships. It wasn't just about Tulsa, Carter says, though that city was in a unique position to receive an injection of funding and investment as a newer settlement.
The Burning of Greenwood
Historians believe Gurley would have continued his mission if the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 had not stripped him of almost everything he owned. Accounts differ, but the Tulsa Race Riot Report by the Oklahoma Commission says that Gurley was worth $157,783--the modern day equivalent of almost $2.3 million--when a White mob burned his businesses and the rest of Greenwood to the ground.
"My best guess is he was one of those people who was fairly well off on May 31. And when he woke up on June 1, he was broke," Krehbiel says.
The survivors of the riot attempted to claim insurance money, and according to Gurley's testimony at those legal proceedings, White rioters appeared at his hotel that morning, all wearing khaki suits: "They saw me standing there and they said, 'You better get out of that hotel because we are going to burn all of this God damn stuff, better get all your guests out."
The mob banged on the lower doors of the hotel's pool hall and restaurant, and people began to flee, leaving their possessions behind.
"There was a deal of shooting going on from the grain elevator or the mill, somebody was over there with a machine gun and shooting down Greenwood Avenue," Gurley said. "The people got on the stairway going down to the street and they stampeded."
The community tried to defend their homes and businesses, survivor W.D. Williams said, until "airplanes came dropping bombs." Then the community burned, including hotels, a school and even brick homes with people most likely still inside, according to Reconstructing the Dreamland by Alfred L. Brophy. The district was mostly rubble when the riot was over. In the end, over 300 people died--and, according to some, more were buried in mass graves. Brophy says that, Gurley left Tulsa and resettled in California. There is no record of him engaging in any major businesses after that day, and despite revival efforts, the Greenwood District hasn't quite returned to its former heights.
But Gurley's legacy has long outlasted his fortune. On the Black Wall Street USA website, Gurley's biography averages 300,000 unique hits a day, Carter says: "What Gurley did was for the long term--for the generations who never would have met him," Carter says, calling Gurley's work a blueprint for future generations: " He laid the groundwork for our generation to pick it up and run with it."