Thousands lost everything in the Tulsa Race Massacre—including my family

Private memoirs reveal how my great great great grandfather helped build one of the most prosperous Black communities in the U.S.

J.B. Stradford, the author's ancestor, built a fortune from very little.
Courtesy John W. Rogers Jr.

When I was in elementary school, my grandfather, Theron C. Toole, pulled me aside at his house. He said he needed to talk to me about something important: our family history. He told me about my great-great-great grandfather, J.B. Stradford, and how he owned property, including a hotel, on Black Wall Street in Tulsa. I didn’t understand the significance 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 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a white mob destroyed the thriving Black community of Greenwood, killing as many as 300 people. The attackers burned more than one thousand homes and numerous businesses—my ancestor J.B.’s properties among them—and left nearly 10,000 people homeless, almost the entire Black population. (See how Tulsa is finally confronting the day a white mob destroyed a Black community.)

In addition to lives, Greenwood residents—and their descendants, like me—lost what would today total an estimated $610 million in accumulated wealth. We also lost a vibrant neighborhood created by successful Black business owners and entrepreneurs not even 50 years after the end of slavery. And at the heart of it was J.B, who did everything in his power to support and enhance the thriving community of Greenwood.  

Before the massacre, Greenwood, later remembered as Black Wall Street, bustled with 41 grocery stores, 30 restaurants, 11 boarding houses, nine billiard parlors, five hotels, and many other businesses, including laundry services, movie theatres, and a dance club. One of the most prominent was my great-great-great grandfather’s Stradford Hotel.

“The most beautiful crystal chandeliers were hung in every banquet hall and lobby,” wrote J.B. in his unpublished memoir, which my cousin Nate Calloway shared with me recently. “The bright lights were flashing all over the place and the guest from afar and near were tripping the fantastic toe, enjoying the opening of the largest and finest hotel in the United States owned and operated and built by an African-American.”

J.B.’s memoir, which he wrote later in his life, recounts how he went from an impoverished childhood to a life of entrepreneurship and civic activism. His story starts 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 to educate himself, even though it was at risk to his life.

Caesar was taught to read by the abolitionist daughter of the family that enslaved him. “After each lesson,” wrote J.B. of his father, “he would put the book in the top of his hat," only taking it out when he could study unseen. “Early morning and evening were spent studying. This procedure continued long enough to enable him to read and write.”

His father’s enslavement and educational process led J.B. to hold high educational standards for himself. He earned his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in Ohio during a time when most universities did not admit Black students and then received his law degree from the Indianapolis College of Law, which was later absorbed by Indiana University.

He began his entrepreneurial journey at Oberlin, working at a barbershop 10 miles from the campus. “After the first month in Oberlin and liquidating my money, I rented two rooms, one for sleeping and the other for a barbershop,” he wrote. “Many of my classmates and citizens patronized me which enabled me to make my current expenses.” 

In Ohio he met Bertie Wiley, the woman he would marry. After graduation, the two returned to Kentucky, where J.B. worked as a school principal and owned a barbershop.

In Kentucky, J.B. had an experience that shaped him for the rest of his life: He saw a man being lynched. A white woman had accused a Black man of rape but J.B. reported in his memoir that she was having an affair with the man and her husband caught them.

When the man was taken out of the jail to be lynched, the rest of the Black community ran and hid but J.B. decided to stay and watch. He vividly describes the man’s death: His neck didn’t snap, and his tongue hung from his mouth “as large as a beeff [sic] tongue.” From that moment, J.B. determined to do all he could to stop lynchings.

But he no longer felt safe in his home state. He and Bertie headed for Indiana with $15,000 in savings. He opened a bicycle store and another barbershop and earned his law degree in 1899. The couple then moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, where Bertie passed away.  

On March 9, 1905, J.B. moved to Tulsa just as it was becoming a boom town 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. J.B. flourished.

“By the beginning of 1917,” he wrote, “I had amassed quite a fortune. I owned 15 rental houses, a sixteen-room brick apartment building. The rental value was $350 a month. The income from other sources were triple. I had a splendid bank account and was living on the Sunnyside of the street. I decided to realize my fondest hope… and that was to erect a large hotel in Tulsa, exclusively for my people.”

On June 1, 1918, three years before the massacre took place, the Stradford Hotel held its grand opening. Described as the crown jewel of Greenwood, the massive building contained 55 hotel rooms, a large lobby, a drug store, a pool hall, a barbershop, a restaurant, and a banquet hall. It was an instant success.

But J.B. wasn’t just interested in material gain. He also wanted to defend his people against brutal lynchings. He and A.J. Smitherman, the editor of the Tulsa Star, one of Greenwood’s two newspapers, would gather groups of men to face down lynch mobs in surrounding towns. But they couldn’t stop what happened in Greenwood.

On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland entered an elevator in the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. The white elevator operator, 17-year-old Sarah Page, screamed for reasons unknown (the most common explanation is that the young Black man stepped on her foot or tripped). The Tulsa Tribune editor “went directly to his office,” wrote J.B., “and put a large headline on the first page saying NEGRO ASSAULTED A WHITE WOMAN IN ELEVATOR OF DREXEL BUILDING, which assured the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Tulsa Race Massacre had been launched. By the time the angry white mob ended their two-day rampage, nearly 10,000 people were left homeless and 6,000 were forced into detainment camps. Martial law was imposed and the National Guard was deployed.

J.B. was arrested and charged with instigating the riot. As the National Guard marched him away, he saw eight of his tenants’ houses, as well as his own home, engulfed in flames. He was placed in an internment camp with his new wife, Augusta. The camp was nearly deadlier for him than Greenwood under attack.

“My son John was confined in the same place with me,” J.B. wrote. “He overheard a conversation between an ex-representative and state Senator etc. ‘We will get Stradford tonight’, spoke one of them. ‘He’s been here too long (fifteen years or longer) and taught the nigger that they are as good as white people. We will give him a necktie party tonight!’”

To avoid being lynched, J.B. moved quickly. Black detainees needed a white sponsor to leave the camp. J.B. recruited a white man he had good relations with to help him and his wife escape out a side door and drive them to the nearby town of Sand Spring. From there, they traveled to Independence, Kansas, where his brother lived. J.B. never returned to Greenwood.

There was more danger still to come. The Oklahoma adjutant general issued warrants for J.B. When authorities arrived in Kansas to arrest him, J.B.’s brother confronted them with a gun, advising that he would shoot and kill them to protect his brother. J.B. was eventually arrested but his son C. Francis Stradford, a lawyer in Chicago, bailed him out.

They boarded a train for Chicago, where J.B. eventually died at the age 74. He had lost his fortune, but he left a legacy of hard work and determination to his descendants, many of whom became lawyers and other professionals.

In 1996, at a ceremony in Tulsa attended by members of my family, J.B. was cleared of all charges that he had incited or started the massacre. ''I didn't have any doubt in my mind that the grand jury that produced these indictments was charged emotionally and politically,'' said Bill LaFortune, former Tulsa mayor and district attorney, at the time. ''Taking all of that as a whole, it appeared to me the best interests of justice would be served by dismissing the charge against him.''

My great-great-great grandfather was absolved for the crime of which he was a victim, but he was never compensated for the fortune he worked so hard to build. I wonder how his story—and my family’s story—would have gone if the massacre never happened, if the perpetrators hadn’t been so full of hate, if he and his Greenwood neighbors had continued to flourish. I have no doubt that there would be Stradford hotels across the country, if not the world.

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