by Contributing Writer Carlos Moreno
During his life, O.W. Gurley was an educator, a church founder, a presidential appointee, a general store owner, a hotel proprietor, a landlord, a deputy police officer, and most famously, the founder of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, OK. His vision of a prosperous black community would be destroyed twice and Gurley himself—one of the first black millionaires in the nation—would die in obscurity, exiled from the district he helped create. Nonetheless, O.W. Gurley’s story is intricately woven within the history of Tulsa and Oklahoma as a whole.
Ottowa W. Gurley was born on Christmas Day of 1868 to John and Rosanna Gurley (both freed slaves) in Huntsville, Alabama. Eight years later, John and Rosanna relocated their family, including Ottowa and his three younger siblings, to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. During this post-Civil War era, black families were quick to take advantage of their freedom. A study of voting patterns in former Confederate states from the University of Minnesota Law School showed that not only did black and white citizens vote in equal numbers after the Civil War ended, but “Black officials also held political offices (around 2,000 in number) at every level in the South, from state Supreme Courts, to the U.S. Senate, down to the county and local level.” Arkansas at this time was not only desegregated, in 1873, a civil-rights law passed, which made it illegal to ban black students from attending public schools.
The Foundation of Gurley’s Vision
Pine Bluff was one of two majority black towns in Arkansas and a place where former slaves could establish a good middle-class living. Some even rose to political power and positions of leadership in educational institutions. One such leader was Joseph Carter Corbin, who, after obtaining his masters degree at Ohio University, relocated to Arkansas in 1872. Corbin worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Daily Republican and was then elected to serve as the State Superintendent of Public Schools. The book Educating the Masses: The Unfolding History of Black School Administrators in Arkansas describes the founding of Branch Normal College (known today as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1875. Established to train teachers, so-called “normal” schools were the equivalent of today’s educational departments in academia. Gurley graduated from Branch Normal College, creating the foundation for his life-long focus on the importance of education.
President Grover Cleveland and the Oklahoma Land Runs
Before pursuing his career in education, Gurley worked for the federal government. Most historical accounts say that he was an appointee of President Grover Cleveland but to what specific position is unspecified. The book Black Fortunes by New York-based journalist Shomari Wills claims that Gurley worked for the U.S. Postal Service. It is entirely possible that these were not mutually exclusive. Gurley had a front-row seat to Cleveland’s policies regarding Indian Territory—knowledge that Gurley would later leverage in building his fortune. Perhaps no sentence captures Cleveland’s attitude toward Native Americans more than this one that was uttered during his first annual address to the nation delivered on December 8, 1885: “While some are lazy, vicious, and stupid, others are industrious, peaceful, and intelligent…” However, Cleveland’s administration issued many proclamations protecting the rights of Native tribes on their lands. President Cleveland also signed into law the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889, opening “unassigned lands” in Oklahoma to anyone who wished to stake their claim.
Gurley resigned from the Cleveland Administration in 1888 and returned to Jefferson County, Arkansas. There, he married Emma Evans and then set out for Oklahoma to participate in the last of four land runs, which began on September 16, 1889. A first-hand account of this day appears in the book Senator 1876-1965: The Life and Career of Elmer Thomas:
“As far as the eye could see, there was a long line of riders, stretching into the sky and over the horizon, all waiting for the 12 o’clock gun. On one side of me, there was a man with a wonderful jag, a wooden leg, and a six-shooter; and on the other side, there was a woman with black tights and a skullcap mounted on a coal-black thoroughbred horse…”
Gurley was one among the crowd of some 100,000 people hoping to stake their claim in the northern part of the state known as the “Cherokee Strip.” Gurley planted his flag near Perry, OK in Noble County, about 80 miles east of Tulsa. In a 2001 article about the early days of Perry, Oklahoma, Presbyterian minister Fred R. Belk notes that the town was known as “Hell’s Half Acre,” home to 110 saloons and gambling houses.
Success in Perry and the Founding of Greenwood
The Gurleys did well for themselves on the land they settled on. He served as the Principal of the City Schools of Perry and later opened a general store. However, news of oil being discovered in Red Fork in 1901 inspired Gurley to seek out an even greater opportunity. In 1905, the same year of the discovery of an even larger oil reserve called the Glen Pool, Gurley purchased 40 acres of land to the north of the Frisco railroad tracks in Tulsa. He established a general store, founded Vernon AME Church, and built a few boarding houses for blacks arriving from all parts of the country to seek their own fortunes. Oklahoma banned black men from working in the oil fields, but black men and women could earn a decent living performing service jobs, such as working as maids, groundskeepers, seamstresses, and food servers.
Soon after getting established in Tulsa, Gurley formed a loose business partnership with fellow visionary and entrepreneur John Baptist (J.B.) Stradford. The two men built up their wealth, continued to re-invest in new businesses, buy and sell land, lend money to other entrepreneurs, and, eventually, own luxurious hotels—The Gurley Hotel and the Stradford Hotel respectively—which became famous throughout the country. Gurley’s hotel was the first commercial building in the new neighborhood, located at 112 N. Greenwood Ave. The name “Greenwood” referred to Greenwood, Mississippi, where many of Gurley’s tennants traveled from to make a life for themselves in the boomtown, which grew to some 10,000 residents by 1921.
Gurley and the 1921 Massacre
On the morning of May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland was found and arrested for the alleged assault of Sarah Page. During the evening, he was held in the jail at the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse when the police brought Page in to testify. There is no written record of her testimony, but according to Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy by Boston journalist James S. Hirsch, Page said that the incident in the elevator was a misunderstanding and she did not want to press charges. Rowland was scheduled to be discharged from the jail by a judge the next morning. Had this been an ordinary case, the matter would have ended right then and there, but what followed was anything but ordinary.
Sheriff Willard M. McCullough began receiving phone calls by white men, enraged by an editorial in the Tulsa Tribune that had come out that morning, who were threatening to gather a mob to lynch Rowland. Twice on the evening of May 31, newspaper publisher A.J. Smitherman led a group of armed black men to the courthouse to ensure that Dick Rowland would not be turned over to the white mob. Twice, O.W. Gurley, who had spoken to Sheriff McCullough, tried to convince the group from Greenwood that no harm would come to Rowland. However, they did not believe him. After 10 pm, the second larger (and this time more heavily armed) group of men led by Smitherman offered to defend Rowland and were asked to return to their homes. As they were leaving, a white man asked one of Smitherman’s men to surrender his gun. The man refused. A fight broke out and the gun went off. The shot was fired into the air, but immediately the two mobs began shooting at each other. The white crowd in front of the courthouse, by this time about 2,000 in number, overpowered the group of black men, who ultimately fled back into Greenwood. As they entered the black district, the white mob began looting buildings and setting fire to homes.
Gurley’s own words from the morning of June 1, 1921 appear in African-American historian Dr. Scott Ellsworth’s book Death in a Promised Land. Early that morning, he looked out of the window of his hotel where he and his wife lived and saw men in khaki clothing set fire to buildings along the street, including his own. He and his wife evacuated their guests and escaped the burning building. While they were fleeing, another man was gunned down near them. Emma fell while they were running and pleaded with her husband to keep running. He fled to Dunbar School and hid in the basement until it, too, was engulfed in flames. Seeing Gurley crawling out of the basement, men from the National Guard captured Gurley and took him to McNulty Park, then a baseball stadium at Tenth Street and Elgin Ave. There, miraculously, he was reunited with Emma.
Beginning of the Reconstruction
The City of Tulsa wasted no time in working not only to prevent Greenwood from being rebuilt but also allowing white developers to come and take land from black property owners. Tulsa historian Hannibal Johnson recounts in his book Black Wall Street that just days after the massacre, the Tulsa City Commission voted to change the zoning of Greenwood such that new buildings in the district needed to be made two-stories high and be made fireproof (built from brick, concrete, or steel). These new rules would have made any rebuilding prohibitively expensive for the black community. Meanwhile, white real estate speculators offered to buy land and burned-down properties for a fraction of what they had been worth. The Tulsa World published an article on June 15—two weeks after the massacre—stating that the city commissioners had formally established new plans for the district and that they would designate it to be an industrial area with a new railroad station.
In response to this announcement, Gurley helped found, and served as the chair, of the Colored Citizens Relief Committee. The committee advocated on behalf of black business owners and homeowners, convincing the Tulsa City Commission to nullify the predatory transfer of property deeds, while at the same time holding public meetings to convince the black community not to sell their property. Even though most homeowners in Greenwood were reduced to living in tents through the remainder of 1921 and 1922, Greenwood residents made it a point of pride to keep their land and rebuild their homes.
What makes Gurley’s leadership and advocacy after the massacre confusing is that he and Emma themselves decided not to rebuild their hotel, home, general store, or any of the other properties they owned. In his book Black Fortunes, Shomari Wills estimates Gurley’s personal property loss to be $250,000, or $3.4 million in today’s dollars. Even more confusing is that in his July 1921 testimony to the state grand jury, Gurley seems to imply that it was a group of black men who refused to listen to his instructions to leave the courthouse and return to Greenwood who were at fault for instigating the violence. Perhaps because of his witness statement, or perhaps because of his status at the time as a deputized police officer who did not hesitate to call out his fellow black officers for “gambling and selling choc and whiskey,” Gurley was not among the 56 black men charged for inciting a riot.
Nonetheless, the Gurleys left Tulsa by 1922 and settled in Los Angeles. The 1930 city directory lists them as living near what today is known as the 27th Street Historic District, an area that began to blossom in the 1920s as an important business and cultural district for blacks in Los Angeles. Very little is known about his time in California. By some accounts, he worked in the hotel industry. According to other sources, he opened a new hotel. The date of his death is unknown. While Gurley lost everything he had created in Greenwood, the neighborhood did eventually rebuild. Black Fortunes contains the words of W.E.B. DuBois, who during a visit to Greenwood District in 1926 remarked, “Black Tulsa is a happy city. It has new clothes. It is young and gay and strong. Five little years ago, fire and blood and robbery leveled it to the ground. Scars are there, but the city is impudent and noisy. It believes in itself. Thank God for the grit of Black Tulsa.”