It pains me to learn that few Americans can link Black material poverty to the country’s historical anti-Black objective, and few examples come to mind as clear as what occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the end of May 1921.
The Tulsa race riot was a two-day bloodbath in which white mobs attacked and destroyed the properties of the Black residents of Greenwood, Tulsa, which was at the time the most prosperous African-American enclave in the United States. Greenwood was even dubbed “Black Wall Street” because of the great number of successful and prosperous Black-owned firms there.
After a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was accused of rapping a 17-year-old white female elevator operator named Sarah Page, a melee erupted. This claim is alleged to have been prompted by Rowland tripping and falling on Page. Initially, the white woman declined to press charges, but pressure from the greater white community, including the press, eventually swayed Page’s decision.
John the Baptist Stradford, also known as J.B. Stradford, was one of the unfortunate men who perished as a result of the destruction of Black Wall Street. Because of the magnitude of his riches and the influence he wielded over businesses in Greenwood over a century ago, he has been dubbed the “Bezos of Black Wall Street.”
In 1861, Julius Caesar Stradford, a manumitted slave, gave birth to Stradford. Thousands of Black people had flocked to Greenwood, including the younger Stradford, who saw the small city as a haven that promised the beauty that comes with Black independence.
Greenwood was founded as a result of Ottawa W. Gurley’s foresight. He was born a free man who progressed through the ranks like any other Black man in those days, even serving under President Grover Cleveland. Gurley purchased 40 acres in Tulsa as part of a program to distribute land to Black people in the early 1900s, and he established Greenwood, a town he named after another town in Mississippi, on a section of the land.
Gurley amassed a fortune that included apartments, townhouses, and a grocery shop, making him one of the wealthiest individuals in the United States. However, he was not the only one who triumphed at Greenwood. Stradford attended law school in Indiana before moving to Kentucky to open shoe shine shops and pool clubs.
He moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1899 after hearing about prospects for others who looked like him there.
Stradford was one of the first guys to believe in Gurley’s Greenwood vision of a city where Black people might truly thrive as entrepreneurs. Stradford owned a hotel in Greenwood by 1910, which was equivalent to any of Oklahoma’s top-tier hotels for whites. The Stradford Hotel, which had 54 suites at the time, was the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States.
Tucker Toole, a great-great-great-grandson of the affluent Stradford, recently uncovered a personal memoir of the wealthy Stradford as part of Toole’s investigation for National Geographic. Stradford said this about what he had circa 1917, in his own words:
“I had fifteen rental houses and a sixteen-room brick apartment complex under my control. The month-to-month rent was $350. Other sources of income were tripled. I had a nice bank account and lived on the Sunnyside of the road. I decided to make my greatest wish come true… and that was to build a large hotel in Tulsa dedicated solely to my people.”
Stradford made investments on behalf of smaller entrepreneurs in other small enterprises. Because of the cumulative effect of these investments, vendors and small-time grocers, for example, flourished in Greenwood alongside him. However, by the time the slaughter occurred in 1921, this would no longer be the case. This was something Toole learned from his grandfather, Stradford’s great-grandson.
“The Stradford [Hotel] was destroyed by fire. Fighter jets flew over the region dumping bombs, according to his [J.B’s] memoirs. A lot of this was difficult to read, and it made me quite sad. He mentioned being placed in a detention camp and receiving information that government officials were intending to lynch him soon in one of his entries. Not just ordinary citizens, but even government officials.”
The riots were blamed on Stradford and another business owner, A.J. Smitherman, by Tulsa police. Smitherman owned the Tulsa Star newspaper and was a publisher. As a result, the two guys were not spared from state-sanctioned brutality.
Because of his riches and assets, Stradford was still one of the few Black individuals who could rebuild their life after Greenwood was destroyed. He and his family relocated from Oklahoma to Chicago, where he passed away in 1935. John. W. Rogers Jr., his great-grandson, is now a millionaire asset manager at Ariel Investments, a multi-billion dollar firm.