Ottawa “O.W.” Gurley was born in 1868 to freed slaves in Huntsville, Alabama. However, he grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The self-educated man later married his childhood friend. Gurley was a man of many professions. He was a pastor, a teacher and also had a brief stint with the U.S. Postal Service.
When oil was discovered in 1905 at a town south of Tulsa, Gurley and his wife joined thousands of young Americans looking to take advantage of the oil boom. He participated in the Cherokee Outlet Land Rush and staked a claim in Perry, Noble County.
Gurley and his wife sold their property in Noble County and moved 80 miles close to Tulsa. He bought 40 acres of land in the North of Tulsa and started his first real estate business, a boarding house that would become Greenwood Avenue.
In addition to opening a grocery store, Gurley launched other businesses such as textile, tapestry, and furniture and also renamed his boarding house Gurley Hotel. Other properties he owned included a two-story building that housed the Masonic Lodge and a Black employment agency. He was also the founder of Vernon AME Church, according to Black Past.
Gurley later subdivided his plot into residential and commercial plots and also opened a grocery store. He sold the plots to only Blacks and as he expected, the Black population increased from 2,000 to nearly 9,000 in a city with a total population of 72,000.
Greenwood, now known as “Black Wall Street,” soon became a prosperous Black community and had a large working-class population, including doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, according to Forbes.
“Greenwood was perceived as a place to escape oppression—economic, social, political oppression—in the Deep South,” Forbes quoted Hannibal B. Johnson, a Tulsa-based historian who has written numerous books about Greenwood, including Black Wall Street.
“It was an economy born of necessity. It wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jim Crow segregation and the inability of Black folks to participate to a substantial degree in the larger white-dominated economy,” he added.
Everything Gurley had labored for came under attack in May 1921. The Tulsa Race Massacre killed hundreds of residents, burning more than 1,250 homes, and erasing years of Black success.
One factor that drove the violence was resentment toward Black prosperity, according to the New York Times. Besides the destruction of properties, the 1921 massacre also destroyed inheritance that could be passed to generations. “When the violence ended, Tulsa Negroes were homeless,” the Journal of Black Studies noted in 1972.
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 the attacks occurred. Gurley later left Tulsa and resettled in California. It is not known if he set up any major businesses after the massacre. “What Gurley did was for the long term–for the generations who never would have met him,” said Dr. Michael Carter, Sr. the founder of Black Wall Street USA, a nonprofit. “He laid the groundwork for our generation to pick it up and run with it.”
Gurley died from arteriosclerosis and a cerebral hemorrhage, in Los Angeles, California, on August 6, 1935, at the age of 67.