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Greenwood Historic District

Tulsa City, Tulsa County, OK


Home in the Greenwood Historic District

Photo: Home in the Greenwood Historic District, Tulsa. The DIstrict was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2022. Photographed by wikipedia username: Marc Carlson (own work), 2012, [cc-2.0], accessed January, 2023.


History of Greenwood [†]

In the latter half of the 19th century, Black settlers began to make their way to Indian Territory. Spurred by the failures of the Reconstruction era and the oppression of Jim Crow, these settlers saw the territory as a potential haven in a time of increasing segregation and near constant threat. Black Southern migrants known as "Exodusters" made their way to Kansas and Oklahoma, as Hannibal Johnson writes, in search of "economic opportunity, full citizenship rights, and self-governance.". Recognizing the territory's potential, Edward Preston (E. P.) McCabe and other Black visionaries set out to make Oklahoma the first all-Black state, forming clubs to promote this vision and petitioning then-President Benjamin Harrison to advocate on their behalf.

The origins of Greenwood District are tied closely to Oklahoma's early Black boosters and visionaries. In 1893, Ottawa W. (O. W.) Gurley participated in the Cherokee Outlet Land Run and staked a claim in what would become Perry, Oklahoma. After the discovery of oil in Tulsa at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Gurley made his way east to Tulsa. In 1906, he purchased 40 acres of land just north of the historic "Frisco" Railway to be sold exclusively to Black settlers, and he opened his first business on a dusty trail in the nascent community: a rooming house to welcome travelers and new residents. Gurley named the trail Greenwood Avenue either after a town in Arkansas, where he had lived previously, or after the City of Greenwood, Mississippi. The growing district soon adopted the name as well.

The origins of Greenwood District are tied closely to Oklahoma's early Black boosters and visionaries. In 1893, Ottawa W. (O. W.) Gurley participated in the Cherokee Outlet Land Run and staked a claim in what would become Perry, Oklahoma. After the discovery of oil in Tulsa at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Gurley made his way east to Tulsa. In 1906, he purchased 40 acres of land just north of the historic "Frisco" Railway to be sold exclusively to Black settlers, and he opened his first business on a dusty trail in the nascent community: a rooming house to welcome travelers and new residents. Gurley named the trail Greenwood Avenue—either after a town in Arkansas, where he had lived previously, or after the City of Greenwood, Mississippi. The growing district soon adopted the name as well.

The discovery of oil at Red Fork in 1901 and Glenn Pool in 1905 and the resulting influx of wealth spurred Greenwood's growth. Some residents worked as shoeshines, domestic workers, gardeners, cooks, and chauffeurs; others started businesses such as beauty parlors, restaurants, and drug stores. Black settlers traveled to Greenwood both from out-of-state and from surrounding communities, including the all-Black towns scattered throughout Oklahoma, in search of economic opportunity, while others in Greenwood had deep ties to Tulsa that stretched back several generations.

The community grew at a remarkable pace, transforming into a mecca for Black entrepreneurs and thinkers. John B. (J. B.) Stradford, a former Kentucky slave, became a leading figure in Greenwood. Although a lawyer by trade, Stradford was a formidable businessman. Like Gurley, he bought tracts of land and sold them exclusively to Black settlers. Eventually, he constructed the Stradford Hotel, a modern fifty-four room brick establishment that "housed a drug store, barber shop, restaurant, and banquet hall."

As Greenwood grew, it attracted the attention of some of the nation's leading Black thinkers and cultural figures. In March 1921, Stradford and Andrew J. (A. J.) Smitherman, the owner and publisher of the Tulsa Star newspaper, brought the famed civil rights leader and co-founder of the NAACP W. E. B. DuBois to Tulsa, where he lectured to a wide audience. By that time, Greenwood's population was approximately 10,000 people, and the district was recognized as one of the preeminent Black communities in the nation. As Hannibal Johnson writes in Black Wall Street, "Beautiful, bustling and Black, Greenwood held its own with Chicago's State Street and Memphis' Beale Street."

Greenwood was the result of ingenuity, acumen, persistence, and hard work, a culmination of E. P. McCabe's vision of a thriving, self-sufficient all-Black community; however, Greenwood was also a product of necessity. On December 18, 1907, the first Oklahoma legislature passed Senate Bill One, the state's first Jim Crow law. Although ostensibly about public transportation, the bill began the process of strictly segregating the state. The disenfranchisement and further segregation of Black Americans through legislation and the constant threat of extralegal violence undoubtedly were factors in the creation, expansion, and prosperity of Greenwood. In his autobiography, B.C. Franklin, father of the celebrated historian John Hope Franklin, writes, "In the end, Tulsa became one of the most sharply segregated cities in the country."

History of Greenwood, 2022, www.tulsalibrary.org, accessed January, 2023.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Archer Street • Cameron • Cherokee Avenue • Davenport East • Detroit Avenue • Elgin Avenue • Frankfort Avenue • Greenwood Avenue • Hartford Avenue • Haskell Street • Independence Place • Iroquois Avenue • Jasper • Kenosan Avenue • King • Lansing Avenue • Latimer Place • Latimer Street • Marshall Street • Newtown Street • Oklahoma Place • Oklahoma Street • Owasso Avenue • Pine Street