Thousands of people lost everything in the Tulsa race massacre, including my family
When I was in elementary school, my grandfather, Theron C. Toole, took me aside in his home. He said he needed to tell me about something important: our family history. He told me about my great-great-great-grandfather, JB Stradford, and how he owned property, including a hotel, on Black Wall Street in Tulsa. I didn’t understand the meaning of what he was saying then, but the words “Black Wall Street” stuck with me.
Now I know more. May 31 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, when a white mob destroyed the thriving black community of Greenwood, killing up to 300 people. The attackers burned down more than a thousand homes and numerous businesses – including the properties of my ancestor JB – and left nearly 10,000 people homeless, almost the entire black population. (See how Tulsa finally faces the day a white mob destroyed a black community.)
In addition to lives, the residents of Greenwood – and their descendants, like me – have lost what today would represent an estimated total of $ 610 million in accumulated wealth. We have also lost a vibrant neighborhood created by successful black homeowners and entrepreneurs, not even 50 years after slavery ended. And at the heart of it was JB, who did everything in his power to support and improve the thriving community of Greenwood.
Before the massacre, Greenwood, later known as Black Wall Street, was full of 41 grocery stores, 30 restaurants, 11 boarding houses, nine pool halls, five hotels, and many other businesses including laundry services, movie theaters and a dance club. One of the most important was the Stradford Hotel of my great-great-great-grandfather.
“The finest crystal chandeliers hung in every banquet hall and in every hall,” JB wrote in his unpublished memoir, which my cousin Nate Calloway shared with me recently. “Brilliant lights were flashing everywhere and guests from far and near stumbled fantastically, enjoying the opening of the largest and most beautiful hotel in America, owned, operated and built by an African American.
JB’s memoir, which he wrote later in his life, chronicles his journey from a poor childhood to a life of entrepreneurship and civic activism. His story begins in Versailles, Kentucky, where he was born on September 10, 1861. His father, Caesar, had been enslaved but worked hard to gain his freedom and educate himself, even though it was in danger to his life.
Caesar learned to read from the abolitionist daughter of the family who enslaved him. “After every lesson,” JB wrote of his father, “he would put the book in the top of his hat,“ only taking it out when he could study without seeing it. Early morning and evening were spent studying. This procedure continued for quite a long time. to enable him to read and write.
Slavery and his father’s educational process led JB to maintain high educational standards for himself. He received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in Ohio at a time when most universities did not admit black students and then graduated from Indianapolis College of Law with his law degree, which was then absorbed by Indiana University.
He started his entrepreneurial journey in Oberlin, working in a hair salon 10 miles from campus. “After the first month in Oberlin and liquidating my money, I rented two rooms, one for sleeping and the other for a barber shop,” he writes. “Many of my classmates and citizens frequented me, which allowed me to meet my daily expenses.”
In Ohio, he met Bertie Wiley, the woman he would marry. After graduating, the two returned to Kentucky, where JB worked as a school principal and owned a barbershop.
In Kentucky, JB had an experience that shaped him for the rest of his life: he saw a man get lynched. A white woman had accused a black man of rape but JB reported in her memoir that she was having an affair with the man and her husband caught them.
When the man was taken out of jail to be lynched, the rest of the black community fled and went into hiding, but JB decided to stay and watch. It clearly describes the man’s death: his neck did not break and his tongue hung from his mouth “as big as a beeff [sic] language. ”From that moment on, JB decided to do whatever he could to stop the lynchings.
But he no longer felt safe in his home country. He and Bertie headed to Indiana with $ 15,000 in savings. He opened a bicycle shop and another barber shop and graduated in law in 1899. The couple then moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, where Bertie died.
On March 9, 1905, JB moved to Tulsa just as it was becoming a booming city with the discovery of the Glenn Pool oil reserve. People – black and white – flooded the city, opening businesses and taking advantage of new job opportunities. JB flourished.
“By early 1917,” he wrote, “I had amassed a fortune. I owned 15 rental homes, a sixteen-room brick building. The rental value was $ 350 per month. Income from other sources was triple. I had a splendid bank account and I lived in Sunnyside across the street. I decided to realize my dearest hope… and that was to build a great hotel in Tulsa, exclusively for my people.
On June 1, 1918, three years before the massacre, the Stradford Hotel held its grand opening. Described as the jewel in Greenwood’s crown, the massive building contained 55 hotel rooms, a grand lobby, a pharmacy, a billiard room, a barber shop, a restaurant, and a banquet hall. It was an instant success.
But JB wasn’t just interested in material gain. He also wanted to defend his people against brutal lynchings. He and AJ Smitherman, the editor of the Star of Tulsa, one of two Greenwood newspapers, gathered groups of men to confront the lynch mobs in the surrounding towns. But they couldn’t stop what happened in Greenwood.
On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. White elevator operator Sarah Page, 17, screamed for unknown reasons (the most common explanation is that the young black man stepped on his foot or tripped). the Tulsa Tribune The editor “went straight to his office,” JB wrote, “and put a headline on the front page saying NEGRO ASSAULTED A WHITE WOMAN IN A DREXEL BUILDING ELEVATOR, which angered the Ku Klux Klan. “
The Tulsa Race Massacre had started. By the time the angry white mob ended its two-day rampage, nearly 10,000 people were left homeless and 6,000 were forced to take refuge in detention camps. Martial law was imposed and the National Guard was deployed.
JB was arrested and charged with provoking the riot. As the National Guard was removing him, he saw eight of his tenants’ homes, as well as his own home, engulfed in flames. He was placed in an internment camp with his new wife, Augusta. The camp was almost deadlier to him than the attacked Greenwood.
“My son John was confined to the same place as me,” JB wrote. “He overheard a conversation between a former representative and a state senator etc. ‘We’re going to have Stradford tonight,” one said. “ He’s been here too long (fifteen years or more) and taught the nigger that they’re as good as white people. We’re going to make him tie night tonight! “
To avoid being lynched, JB moved quickly. Black inmates needed a white sponsor to leave the camp. JB recruited a white man he had a good relationship with to help him and his wife escape through a side door and lead them to the nearby town of Sand Spring. From there they traveled to Independence, Kansas, where his brother lived. JB never returned to Greenwood.
There was still more danger to come. The Oklahoma adjutant general has issued arrest warrants for JB. When authorities arrived in Kansas to arrest him, JB’s brother confronted them with a gun, advising them to shoot and kill them to protect his brother. JB was eventually arrested but his son C. Francis Stradford, a lawyer in Chicago, released him on bail.
They boarded a train to Chicago, where JB eventually died at the age of 74. He had lost his fortune, but he left a legacy of hard work and determination to his descendants, many of whom went on to become lawyers and other professionals.
In 1996, at a ceremony in Tulsa attended by members of my family, JB was cleared of all charges that he had instigated or started the massacre. “I had no doubts in my mind that the grand jury that produced these indictments were being indicted emotionally and politically,” said Bill LaFortune, former Tulsa mayor and district attorney at the time. “ Taking it all together, it seemed to me that the best interests of justice would be served by dismissing the charge against him. ”
My great-great-great-grandfather was absolved of the crime he suffered, but he was never compensated for the fortune he worked so hard to build. I wonder how his story – and that of my family – would have played out if the massacre had never happened, if the perpetrators had not been so full of hate, if he and his neighbors in Greenwood had continued to thrive. . I am sure there would be Stradford hotels all over the country, if not the world.