O.W. Gurley was once one of the wealthiest Black men in America and the founder of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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Ottawa Gurley was born on December 25, 1868, in Huntsville, Alabama, to freed slaves John and Rosanna Gurley. In 1876, Gurley’s family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In 1884, Gurley graduated from the Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). He was also a student of prominent Pine Bluff educator Joseph Carter Corbin.
On January 25, 1888, he married his childhood sweetheart Emma Evans. He soon became a teacher and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. In 1893, Gurley joined the Great Oklahoma Land Rush as a homesteader seeking freedom and fortune. On September 16, he staked his claim on a plot of land in Perry, Noble County, Oklahoma, a town only advertised to African Americans. He ran unsuccessfully for treasurer of Noble County but later became principal of the town’s school and successfully operated the town’s general store for a decade.
In 1905, after hearing about the opportunities resulting from its giant oil fields, Gurley and his wife sold the store and moved to the rapidly growing city of Tulsa. Once there, Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in the “Coloreds only” section of town and established his first business, a boarding house on a dusty trail along the train tracks. He later named the road Greenwood Avenue after a Mississippi city. The area became a popular destination for Black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow oppression of Mississippi. Gurley soon subdivided his 40 acre plot of land into commercial and residential lots and eventually opened a grocery store.
Because of the discovery of oil in the Tulsa area, new opportunities opened up for African Americans in the workforce. This allowed many enterprising locals to earn enough money to open their own businesses in the Greenwood Business district. As Greenwood became progressively more self-sustaining, Booker T. Washington dubbed it “Black Wall Street.”
Determined to help Greenwood and its residents flourish, Gurley provided loans to Black entrepreneurs. In addition to his boarding house, he built three two-story buildings, five residences, and a hotel. He bought an 80 acre farm in Roger County, built a Black Masonic lodge, and helped establish the Vernon AME Church and an employment agency for migrant workers.
Gurley informally partnered with J.B. Stratford, another African American entrepreneur, set on further developing the Greenwood community. In 1914, Gurley’s net worth was $150,000, equivalent to approximately 4.5 million today. By 1921, Gurley owned more than 100 of the 600 properties in Greenwood. His net worth was estimated to be between $500,000 to $1 million ($15 - $30 million today).
Unfortunately, Gurley’s fortune would suddenly disappear when the Tulsa Race Massacre erupted on May 30, 1921. Dick Rowland, a black teenager, was accused of making advances to a white woman,Sarah Page, in an elevator in a white-owned hotel. An inflammatory report was published in the Tulsa Tribune, galvanizing a white mob’s attempt to lynch Rowland, who was being held at county courthouse. Black citizens intent on preventing Rowland’s lynching showed up at the courthouse, and a scuffle between the two groups erupted. By the time the Massacre ended on the morning of June 2, approximately 300 Black residents of Greenwood had been killed, 35 blocks of the Greenwood district had been burned by white rioters, and more than 800 people had been injured.
Gurley lost an estimated $200,000 of his fortune, including the Gurley Hotel and his family residence, worth $55,000. During the Massacre, Gurley and his wife were arrested and detained at a National Guard internment camp for inciting the conflict. In response, Gurley implicated fellow wealthy businessman J.B. Stradford and newspaper editor A.J. Smitherman to secure his release. He then fled to Los Angeles, California, where he and his wife ran a small hotel.
On August 6, 1935, Gurley died from arteriosclerosis and a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 67.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard