Around the start of the 20th century O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American land-owner from Arkansas, traversed the United States to participate in the Oklahoma Land run of 1889. The young entrepreneur had just resigned from a presidential appointment under president Grover Cleveland in order to strike out on his own.
In 1906, Gurley moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he purchased 40 acres of land which was “only to be sold to colored”. Black ownership was unheard of at that time.
Among Gurley’s first businesses was a rooming house which was located on a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. This road was given the name Greenwood Avenue, named for a city in Mississippi. The area became very popular among African American migrants fleeing the oppression in Mississippi. They would find refuge in Gurley’s building, as the racial persecution from the south was non-existent on Greenwood Avenue.
In addition to his rooming house, Gurley built three two-story buildings & five residences & bought an 80-acre (320,000 m2) farm in Rogers County. Gurley moreover founded what is today Vernon AME Church.
This implementation of “colored” segregation set the Greenwood boundaries of separateness that exist to this day: Pine Street to the North, Archer Street & the Frisco tracks to the South, Cincinnati Street on the West, & Lansing Street on the East. The segregation is pronounced in subtle landmarks. South of Archer, Greenwood Avenue does not exist in white neighborhoods.
Another African American entrepreneur, J.B. Stradford, arrived in Tulsa in 1899. He believed that black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, worked together & supported each other’s businesses. He bought large tracts of real estate in the northeastern part of Tulsa, which he had subdivided & sold exclusively to other African Americans. Gurley & a number of other blacks shortly followed suit. Stradford after built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood, where blacks could enjoy the amenities of the downtown hotels who served only whites. It was said to be the largest black-owned hotel in the United States.
Gurley’s prominence & wealth were short lived. In a matter of moments, he lost everything. During the race war, The Gurley Hotel at 112 N. Greenwood, the street’s first commercial enterprise, valued at $55,000, was lost, & with it Brunswick Billiard Parlor & Dock Eastmand & Hughes Cafe. Gurley moreover owned a two-story building at 119 N. Greenwood. It housed Carter’s Barbershop, Hardy Rooms, a pool hall, & cigar store. All were reduced to ruins. By his account & court records, he lost nearly $200,000 in the 1921 race war.
Because of his leadership role in creating this self-sustaining exclusive black “enclave“, it had been falsely rumored that Gurley was lynched by a white mob & buried in an unmarked grave. However, according to the memoirs of Greenwood pioneer, B.C. Franklin,Gurley exiled himself to California. The founder of the most successful African American community of his time vanished from the history books & drifted into obscurity. He is now being honored in a 2008 documentary film called, Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.