Black Wall Street’s Lessons in Entrepreneurship

The historical Black Wall Street community has laid the blueprint for future generations to follow.

In May of 2021, the Greenwood District located in Tulsa, Oklahoma will celebrate the 100th year anniversary of Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street is renowned for being one of the most prosperous African-American communities in the United States — known as an entrepreneurial mecca.

Despite living in conditions of intense racial animosity, Jim Crow Laws, menial labor, and earning low-wages blacks in Greenwood found a way to thrive and to be resilient. Blacks were only allowed to travel outside of their restricted areas to work frontline jobs. They were prohibited from using white establishments — including restrooms.

Hannibal Johnson, Black Wall Street Historian and Author, says, “They were shut out of the main stream economy. They were forced to take a detour into their own economic space of those 35 blocks in Greenwood.”

The community was founded by O.W. Gurley, a black business man from Arkansas. Gurley saw opportunity due to the rediscovery of oil in Tulsa. Whites were buying massive amounts of land and restricting blacks from inhabiting it. As a relator, Gurley, went out and purchased 40 acres of land and only sold parcels to blacks.

Johnson says, “Gurley purchased land for the black community and used part of that land to build his own businesses. In 1906, he established a grocery store and a rooming house.”

As Greenwood begun to grow other black entrepreneurs came to help Gurley build this prolific community. Simon Berry created a bus line, charter plane service, and a boutique hotel. Mabel B. Little established a popular beauty salon. John and Loula Williams opened a candy shop, theatre, rooming house, and a garage.

J.B. Stratford focused on real estate — building rental units. Stratford built his magnum opus, the Stratford hotel, which at the time was the largest black-owned hotel in North America. The hotel consisted of 54 suites, saloon, pool hall, gambling hall, and a dining room. It was valued at $75,000, in today’s times that would equate to about $2.5 million.

Greenwood had their own schooling system, churches, hospital, bank, movie theatres, grocery stores, restaurants, and private charter planes.

Dr. Michael Carter Sr., founder of Black Wall Street USA, says, “The people within the community used their gifts and talents to create for others. Everything that they needed they created it instead of importing it. There was a system in place in Greenwood to help the poor people that lived among the rich — you do not see that today.”

“There was a high degree of home ownership. There were several members of the community that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. That would translate to millions today,” adds Johnson.

Greenwood’s success can be attributed to their ability to rally together and to support one another. They came together out of necessity — they were literally all they had.

“They had to collaborate and corporate for others to be successful. Those that went out and worked in white neighborhoods came back and spent their money within their own community,” says Johnson.

According to Dr. Carter Sr., “the black dollar circulated within the community 90 times before it left.”

On May 31, 1921, one of the deadliest massacres in United States history took place in Tulsa. Over 300 African Americans were murdered, 1200 homes destroyed, and 35 blocks were set ablaze by angry white rioters. With their homes and business destroyed and burned to ashes, thousands were forced to live in tent cities in subsequent months. They were left to pick up the pieces on their own.

According to Johnson, it is estimated that $1.5 million in damages stemmed from the massacre, in today’s value this would be upwards of $30 million worth of damage.

History repeats

Fast forward to present day, minimal civil rights progress has been made a century later. The African-American community in the United States finds themselves still being disenfranchised and discriminated against. The recent pandemic has impacted everyone but African Americans once again bear the brunt of these unprecedent times.

Black households were particular vulnerable to economic shocks heading into the COVID-19 pandemic. Having substantially less emergency savings than white households to insulate themselves during unforeseen times.

Black workers lost jobs at an incredible pace. Many of those who were fortunate to still have employment were more likely to be found on the front lines working essential jobs — forced to put themselves at risk of contracting the virus, just to have the means to survive. Not to mention, the underlying health conditions that many African Americans have which puts them at a higher risk of infection.

Lessons to takeaway

Blacks across the United States are being pushed into parallel economic conditions that the illustrious Greenwood community faced in the early 1900’s. Fortunately for the black community we have the blueprint of Black Wall Street to follow.

Black people have a long history of entrepreneurship; it is built in our DNA. We see this as a pathway to building wealth not just for ourselves and family but for our community,” says Ashley Philippsen, Senior Director of Engagement and Advocacy, Impact Tulsa.

“Our people have to get in the right spirit. If they want to model the success of Greenwood, it has to be spiritual first not economics — you will never see economic benefits and blueprints unless you are in the right spirit,” says Dr. Carter Sr.

The overarching lesson that we as a community can extract from the Greenwood legacy is to be self-sufficient. Do not expect help from external communities or entities, we have all the help we need within our own community.

According to the Catalyst, in 2019, African-Americans had $1.4 Trillion in buying power, whites had $13.2 Trillion. The wealth disparity is evident but we have enough capital to build our own Black Wall Streets across the country if we pool our resources together and move strategically.

“Self-sufficiency is the embodiment of for us by us, where communities create the world in which they want to live,” says Philippsen.

To be a part of the celebration of Black Wall Street’s centennial anniversary, visit Tulsa2021.org. The Tulsa Race Massacre Sentinel Commission has many exciting events planned to honor their legacy starting in May of 2021.

Lastly, remember who you are, at our core we are a people of love and resiliency. Love yourself, love your brother, and love your sister. Do not compete with your brother or sister — build with them. We are stronger together!