It saddens me to realize that very few Americans are able to attribute Black material poverty to the country’s historical agenda against Black people, and very few examples come to mind as certain as what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the end of May 1921.
Sometimes known as the Tulsa race riot, what happened was a two-day massacre of white mobs attacking and destroying the properties of the Black inhabitants living in Greenwood, Tulsa which was at that time the most affluent African-American community in the United States. Greenwood was even known as the “Black Wall Street” as it was home to highly successful and profitable Black-owned businesses.
The riot was spurred after a 19-year old Black shoe shiner by the name of Dick Rowland was accused of raping a 17-year old white female elevator operator by the name of Sarah Page. It is thought this accusation was caused by Rowland slipping and falling on Page. The white woman initially refused to press charges but accumulative pressure from the larger white community, including the press, turned Page’s will.
One of the men who was unfortunately affected in the destruction of Black Wall Street was the curiously named John the Baptist Stradford, otherwise known as J.B. Stradford. He has come to be called the Bezos of Black Wall Street, owing to the depth of his wealth as well as the influence he held over businesses in Greenwood over 100 years ago.
Stradford was born to a manumitted slave called Julius Caesar Stradford in 1861. The younger Stradford had made his way to Greenwood, like thousands of other Black people who saw the small city as a refuge that promised the beauty that came with Black freedom.
Greenwood had been established thanks to the forethought of Ottawa W. Gurley. He was born a freeman and rose as well as any Black man would in those days having even served under President Grover Cleveland. In the early 1900s, Gurley bought 40 acres in Tulsa as part of a program to give land to Black people, and he established on a portion of the land, Greenwood, a place he named after another town in Mississippi.
Gurley became one of the wealthiest men in the United States owning apartments, townhouses, and a grocery store. But he was not the only man who won at Greenwood. Stradford graduated from law school in Indiana, moved to Kentucky to open shoeshine parlors and pool halls. After hearing of the opportunities for people who looked like him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he moved there in 1899.
Stradford was one of the first men who bought into Gurley’s Greenwood dreams of growing a city where Black people genuinely flourished entrepreneurially. By 1910, Stradford owned a hotel in Greenwood, comparable to any of the top-grade hotels that served white people in Oklahoma. The Stradford Hotel had 54 suites and was the biggest Black-owned hotel in the United States at the time.
Recently, a personal memoir of the wealthy Stradford was discovered by Tucker Toole, a great-great-great-grandson as part of Toole’s research for National Geographic. In his own words, Stradford said this, describing what he owned around 1917:
I owned 15 rental houses, a sixteen-room brick apartment building. The rental value was $350 a month. The income from other sources were triple. I had a splendid bank account and was living on the Sunnyside of the street. I decided to realize my fondest hope… and that was to erect a large hotel in Tulsa, exclusively for my people.
Stradford invested in other small businesses on behalf of smaller entrepreneurs. The cumulative effect of these investments meant that while he grew in Greenwood, so did vendors and small-time grocers, for instance. But this would not last beyond 1921 when the massacre began. Toole recalled learning this from his grandfather, Stradford’s great-grandson.
The Stradford [Hotel] was burned to the ground. In his [J.B’s] memoirs, he described the fighter planes flying over the area and dropping bombs. It wasn’t easy reading a lot of this, and it really got me emotional. There was one entry where he talked about being placed in the detainment camp, and word getting back to him that government officials were planning to lynch him soon. Government officials, not just regular members of the community.
The police in Tulsa blamed Stradford and another business owner, A.J. Smitherman for inciting the riots. Smitherman was a publisher who owned the Tulsa Star newspaper. The two men were therefore not spared the brunt of state-sanctioned violence.
Stradford was still one of the handful of Black people who could reinvigorate their lives after the destruction of Greenwood because of his wealth and investments. He and his family moved on from Oklahoma and settled in Chicago where he died in 1935. Today, his great-grandson, John. W. Rogers Jr., is a millionaire asset manager at Ariel Investments, a multi-billion dollar firm.