O.W. GURLEY

THE FOUNDER OF BLACK WALL STREET

Before the turn of the century, O. W. Gurley, a wealthy Arkansas landowner and entrepreneur resigned a presidential appointment under President Grover Cleveland to come to Oklahoma for the 1889 land run. He secured a farm and later moved to Perry, Oklahoma, where he served as principal of the city's school. O. W. Gurley was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on Christmas Day, 1868. When he was eight, his parents, both former slaves, moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He graduated in 1884 from the Branch Normal School of Jefferson County Arkansas and taught school in the county for eight years. He married Emma Wells of Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1888. Gurley inherited his father's 320 acres valued at $35,000 today worth 10 times that amount.

In July of 1906, he moved to Tulsa and bought 40 acres "to be sold to Coloreds only." His first business was a rooming house on a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. He called the avenue Greenwood, named for a city in Arkansas. Many of the migrants fleeing the oppression in Mississippi would room in his building near the Frisco railroad tracks. He and his wife Emma also built three two-story buildings and five residences and bought an 80-acre farm in Rogers County. Gurley was also a founding member of what is today Vernon AME Church.

 

Gurley's self-imposed segregation set the Greenwood boundaries of separateness that exist to this day: Pine Street to the North, Archer Street and the Frisco tracks to the South, Cincinnati Street on the West, and Lansing Street on the East. The segregation is pronounced in subtle landmarks. South of Archer, Greenwood Avenue does not exist in white neighborhoods. To the North of Pine, in what was an all-white area, it is called Garrison.

Gurley's prominence and wealth were short lived. He lost everything during the race war. The Gurley Hotel, at 112 N. Greenwood, the street's first commercial enterprise, valued at $55,000, was lost and with it Brunswick Billiard Parlor and Dock Eastmand & Hughes Cafe that were housed there. Gurley also owned a two-story building at 119 N. Greenwood. It housed Carter's Barbershop, Hardy Rooms, a pool hall, and cigar store. All were reduced to ruins. By his account and court records, he lost nearly $200,000 in the 1921 race war.

The destruction destroyed 35-square blocks of The Black Wall Street of America. In court testimony and press accounts, Gurley named businessmen J. B. Stradford, J.D. Mann, and Tulsa Star newspaper publisher A.J. Smitherman as leaders who inspired the outbreak during a confrontation at the courthouse with a white mob. Blacks suspected the white mob of attempting to lynch Dick Rowland, accused of a daylight assault of a white woman in a downtown elevator.

All three were indicted and fled Tulsa to avoid prosecution. Stradford and Smitherman never returned. Sometime later, Mann returned to Greenwood and re-established his business. It had been rumored that Gurley was lynched and buried in an unmarked grave.

However, according to the memoirs of Greenwood pioneer B.C. Franklin -- My Life and an Era, published posthumously by his son, Historian Dr. John Hope Franklin in 1997 Gurley exiled himself to California and the founder of The Black Wall Street of America vanished from history and drifted into obscurity.

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BLACK WALL STREET PIONEERS