When O.W. Gurley, an accomplished landowner and entrepreneur, moved his family from Perry in 1905 to what is now known as Tulsa’s Greenwood District, the possibilities for a true Black-centered, self-sustaining hub that enticed freedom from the shackles of Jim Crow laws and oppression had yet to be realized in America.
Gurley, who once worked under President Grover Cleveland, saw an opportunity in the northeast section of the city and purchased 40 acres.
The vision, an almost audacious one at the time considering the unforgiving circumstances societal Black Americans faced, was to create something constructed by Black people for Black people.
Placing that inspiration in motion, Gurley opened a boarding house in 1906 — the first business in the newly minted Greenwood — with the purpose of attracting African American train travelers who frequently found a haven to rest difficult along rail routes seeking similar services operated by whites.
After word spread of opportunities for Blacks in Greenwood, they traveled to the district and more businesses — Black-owned ones at that — quickly sprung up with Gurley’s assistance.
The present-day legacy of Greenwood is that extraordinary pre-Tulsa Race Massacre period when Black people stationed in the mid-South controlled their own cultural and economic destiny underscored by more than 600 businesses at its height.
Over time, however, that dominion over Greenwood once exclusively held by African Americans — through migration, small businesses dying out and political interference by way of redlining, desegregation and urban renewal — had slowly eroded that presence to a mere trickle by the 1980s.
“Even if desegregation had not emerged, you would have seen some of the same developments occur,” sociologist Greg Arquitt told the Tulsa World in a 1997 article about Greenwood’s transition. “It wasn’t just Blacks moving because they could move, the entire population was moving — toward nationally based providers of services and goods as opposed to locally based ones.”
A century later, what’s left of the original Black Wall Street consists of a cluster of Black and white-owned businesses in the shadow of ONEOK Field, a multipurpose sports stadium near Interstate 244 — the concrete and steel symbol that many residents long have considered the death knell of what once was.
The vast majority of the 35 square blocks that make up Greenwood are now owned by the Tulsa Development Authority and Oklahoma’s university system where OSU-Tulsa sits. The majority of the vacant land north of the Inner Dispersal Loop is still owned by TDA.
The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce owns the business stretch of 10 brick buildings positioned along Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street.
Last June, the chamber launched a $10 million initiative to help restore the historic buildings and provide ongoing resources to businesses in the district and the local community.
“We desire to have unity among our business community,” Freeman Culver, president of the Greenwood Chamber, said about the “Restore Black Wall Street” campaign. “We love the growth of downtown Tulsa and in the Greenwood area, but we want to be part of it.”
The city has earmarked more than a dozen projects in and around Greenwood over the past decade, including the $23 million USA BMX facility, Vast Bank and the mixed-use property GreenArch.
Moved by a desire to facilitate Black land ownership and business development throughout Greenwood, Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper helped launch the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce in 2018.
The goal, said Hall-Harper, was to raise money to purchase land with the intention of rebuilding Black Wall Street and north Tulsa through its Power Group initiative.
“If we want more and better for our community, we are going to have to do it, and it is going to have to be done in the spirit of Black Wall Street through cooperative economics,” Hall-Harper told the World in 2019. “That’s what O.W. Gurley did and that’s what J.B. Stratford did in the early 1900s.”
Hall-Harper most recently explained that the venture has yet to bear fruit of land acquisition, though the group is actively raising money.
Hall-Harper in January voiced opposition to a plan that called for moving the Tulsa County OSU Extension Center to the OSU-Tulsa campus in the Greenwood District, saying “it does absolutely nothing” in efforts to renew the district.
Kian Kamas, the city’s chief of economic development, explained the city has gone to great lengths to provide opportunities for African American developers and entrepreneurs in an around the Greenwood District.
The city, Kamas said, is in the process of finalizing a deal to develop around the old Evans Fintube building just south of the BMX site with the ambition that developers would support “wealth creation for Greenwood and north Tulsa” through direct project participation.
There is also the Kirkpatrick Heights Master Plan — borne of the University Center at Tulsa Authority-TDA settlement — that will focus on ways in which long-term development and redevelopment could spark economic growth to be directly invested into north Tulsa.
There is also interest by the city in exploring how to cultivate spaces for Black-owned businesses and ensure any future housing developments do not lead to displacement of longtime residents.
LaToya Rose, who has operated Rose Tax Solutions at 107 N. Greenwood Ave. since 2018, has a special connection to the district. Her grandfather owned a business in Greenwood two generations ago and her father, Walter Armstrong, currently runs Big A Bail Bond Co. at 144 N. Greenwood Ave. He has been in the location since 2006.
“It is very important for us as a family to operate on Greenwood,” Rose said. It’s important to share the light and truth even about the massacre and empower them (the public) to know their history and not to get stuck on one part of the narrative.
“For us, it’s more than just making a dollar.”
Angela Myrick specifically chose to open Frios Gourmet Pops dessert shop at 105 N. Greenwood Ave. in 2017 because she is a child of the district and had a legacy of business ownership within her family dating back to the 1950s and ‘60s.
Myrick, a Tulsa native, spent a large portion of her life on Greenwood and “wanted to follow that legacy” decorated throughout her lineage.
She vividly remembers marveling at the all the businesses that lined the district and hopes even a portion of that sight can return in the future with the prospect of more businesses opening.
“There were businesses up and down for miles and blocks,” she said. “Now it’s very encouraging and makes me feel that a part of that is coming back.”
Phil Armstrong, project director for Greenwood Rising, is optimistic that can be a reality through a multiyear development plan to revitalize Greenwood beyond 2021.
“This is just the beginning — and not only of a journey to racial reconciliation, but to the economic revitalization of what was Greenwood,” Armstrong said.
Tulsa Race Massacre: Photos from then and now
“We desire to have unity among our business community. We love the growth of downtown Tulsa and in the Greenwood area, but we want to be part of it.”
Freeman Culver, president of the Greenwood Chamber, about the “Restore Black Wall Street” campaign