The African American Founder Of The First Black Wall Street: In 1868, in Huntsville, Alabama, Ottawa “O.W.” Gurley was born to liberated slaves. He grew up, though, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Later in life, the self-educated man married his childhood friend. Gurley was a multi-talented individual. He was a pastor, a teacher, and even worked for the US Postal Service for a short time.
Gurley and his wife were among the thousands of young Americans who flocked to a village south of Tulsa when oil was discovered in 1905. He took part in the Cherokee Outlet Land Rush and staked a claim in Noble County’s Perry.
Gurley and his wife sold their Noble County home and relocated to Tulsa, some 80 miles away. He purchased 40 acres of land north of Tulsa and opened his first real estate firm, a boarding house on Greenwood Avenue.
Gurley opened a grocery store as well as other businesses such as textiles, tapestries, and furniture, as well as renaming his boarding house the Gurley Hotel. A two-story structure that housed the Masonic Lodge and a Black employment agency were among his other possessions. According to Black Past, he was also the founder of Vernon AME Church.
Gurley then subdivided his land into residential and commercial units, as well as constructing a grocery store on it. He solely sold plots to Blacks, and the Black population grew from 2,000 to over 9,000 in a city with a total population of 72,000 people, just as he predicted.
According to Forbes, Greenwood, now known as “Black Wall Street,” grew into a thriving Black community with a substantial working-class population that included doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.
According to Hannibal B. Johnson, a Tulsa-based historian who has written multiple books about Greenwood, including Black Wall Street, “Greenwood was viewed as a haven to escape oppression—economic, social, and political oppression—in the Deep South.”
“It was a necessity-based economy. It would not have existed if Jim Crow segregation and the incapacity of Black people to participate in a significant way in the greater white-dominated economy had not existed,” he continued.
In May 1921, everything Gurley had worked for came under attack. Hundreds of people were massacred in the Tulsa Race Massacre, which burned over 1,250 homes and erased years of Black progress.
According to the New York Times, resentment over Black prosperity was one element driving the violence. The 1921 slaughter not only destroyed property, but it also ruined inheritance that could have been carried down through the generations. Tulsa Negroes were homeless when the violence stopped, according to the Journal of Black Studies in 1972.
According to the Oklahoma Commission’s Tulsa Race Riot Report, Gurley was worth $157,783 at the time of the attacks (about $2.3 million today). Gurley later relocated to California after leaving Tulsa. It is unknown if he established any substantial companies following the massacre. Dr. Michael Carter, Sr., the founder of the group Black Wall Street USA, remarked, “What Gurley accomplished was for the long term–for generations who would never have met him.” “He laid the foundation for our generation to pick up and carry on.”
Gurley died on August 6, 1935, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 67, from arteriosclerosis and a brain hemorrhage.