J. B Stradford and Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Terrorists
In October, 1996, in a long overdue example of poetic and legal justice, John B. Stradford was cleared of wrongdoing in an act of terror that resulted in dozens or hundreds of murders, no one knows for sure, and there are rumors of a mass grave. And this was 75 years after the fact. So who was J. B. Stradford? What makes him a Poetic Justice Warrior. And why was it important to exonerate him?
The Other Side of the Tracks
J. B. Stradford, with his wife Augusta, moved their family to Oklahoma in 1898. This was a time when many African Americans were escaping the white supremacist hegemony of the Reconstruction south, and its terrorist lynchings. For the first time in their lives, the majority of African Americans were able to exercise freedom of movement and self-determination. Thirty five years earlier, Stradford’s father, who was literate, learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, and was able to legally secure freedom for himself and his family. Stradford reinvested in his father’s vision, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio, and then Indiana University Law School.
However, segregation was the order of the day in Oklahoma, and for blacks to thrive, they had to create their own self-sustaining communities. The first one was established in 1890 in Langston by Edwin McCabe, who eventually lured Stradford from Indianapolis to Tulsa to do the same thing using his legal background and interest in real estate development. Their vision was a politically powerful, black friendly state, and 50 such communities were built. Tulsa eventually became the crown jewel, in part because Stradford developed an informal business relationship and shared vision with another real estate investor, Ottowa. W. Gurley, whose family of freed slaves migrated to Oklahoma as part of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Grab. Shortly after the Oklahoma oil boom began in 1901, O. W. Gurley also moved to Tulsa.
According to Shomari Wills in Investopedia:
The two men began to develop an all- black district in the unincorporated stretch of land north of Tulsa’s train station. They subdivided the plots they owned in uptown Tulsa on the north side of a set of railroad tracks into housing and retail lots, alleys and streets that they made available only to other African Americans fleeing the lynchings and terror of the South for the economic opportunity of Tulsa’s oil boom.
The Legal Justice Warrior
By 1905, in what was now known as the Greenwood district, a doctor and a dentist each established their practices, a second school, a newspaper, a hardware store, and a church were built. By 1913, there were hotels and law offices, cafes and pharmacies, barbershops, movie theaters and hair salons.
Eventually, there were hundreds of businesses, all were black owned and operated, and this vision turned out to be necessary and prescient, because also during this period, Oklahoma achieved statehood, and Jim Crow laws had followed the land rush, Stradford, and the oil boom to Oklahoma. As Wills explains:
When the Oklahoma territory achieved statehood in 1907 and segregationist Democrats, led by the white supremacist Bill “Alfalfa” Murray, took control of all levels of government, they passed laws against interracial marriage and prohibited blacks from working at high- wage jobs. In 1910, one of the first grandfather clauses preventing blacks from voting was passed.
Because of this decline in political freedom, Stradford used his legal training to work within the political system and defend the rights of blacks to move freely and to self-determination. In 1912 he sued Midland Valley Railroad in state and federal court for false imprisonment after being forcibly removed from a luxury rail car that he had paid for.
He expressed his antipathy for the Tulsa City Commission’s segregation ordinances by writing that they are “a stigma upon the colored race in the eyes of the world; and to sap the spirit of hope for justice before the law from the race itself.”
Stradford lost his railway freedom lawsuits, which angered Greenwood residents. And the lawsuits also angered Tulsa residents because he had the nerve to file them in the first place. According to Steve Gerkin in This Land,
There was a rising tide of passion in Greenwood. They were ready to forcefully defend the promise of equality under the law. White Tulsa became less enchanted with the likes of J.B. Stradford. Although Stradford was respected as a legitimate businessman, many Tulsans despised him.
Poetic Justice Served
As segregation was gaining strength in Oklahoma, the Greenwood district in Tulsa gained even more prosperity. It was not the wealthiest black community in America, but because its ability to create wealth by free people trading value for value, it became legendary.
Black employees of white businesses and households in Tulsa crossed the railroad tracks every day and brought their earnings, fueled by the oil boom, back to Greenwood to circulate in its businesses. Conversely, white customers crossed the tracks to patronize the saloons and gambling halls in Greenwood under the cover of darkness, and in broad daylight for lunch at the Little Bell Café, famous for its smothered chicken and rice.
On May 31, 1921, Greenwood was firebombed and leveled by government sponsored terrorists fueled by the envy of collectivism. With his son’s help, Stradford escaped to Chicago.Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash