Episode 2: The Rise of Greenwood
[CHESS SCENE with KalaLea and her niece]
KalaLea: Mmkay… Can I take your knight by going --
Niece: No, you can only go diagonal
KalaLea: I thought you said side to side!
Niece: No, I said diagonal.
KALALEA (narration): My 8-year-old niece and I are playing chess, and she’s winning.
She reminds me that the object of the game is to checkmate your opponent.
Niece: And the thing about getting the King, you can only win if you’re in checkmate, which means...
Piece by piece she shows me what’s possible, and I do my best to take it all in, but I’m admittedly overwhelmed.
KalaLea: So, two forward, one to the right or the left, or two back and one to the right or the left, right?
KALALEA: It definitely doesn’t help that my niece beats me, like, every time we play.
But it’s clear she’s deeply invested in the game — and she knows the rules.
While I’m sitting over here, trying to hold onto every game piece — including my pawns.
KalaLea: I’m just gonna play it safe right now.
KALALEA: But my niece tells me to forget about the pawns, something must be sacrificed.
After another beating, she tells me that the key is to think three moves ahead — while focusing on taking her King and protecting mine.
Niece: How do I say this… you need to sort of pace yourself, and think ahead.
KalaLea: Right, okay, that’s good to know. And then the whole point, like you said, is survival, right? Survival.
KALALEA: Chess makes me think about Greenwood. Well, lately, everything makes me think of Greenwood. But when my niece and I are playing, it helps me better understand how the people who destroyed that community set about doing it.
The attack didn’t come out of nowhere. It was in the works for years — for decades even. Greenwood’s destruction was carefully plotted by people who were always thinking three or more moves ahead.
It was deliberate. Strategic. And — it followed a pattern.
KalaLea: I had a lot of questions about the history and how the Creeks ended up in Oklahoma.
Eli Grayson: Go back girl, you mean how Oklahoma ended up in the Creek nation. Let’s get that right, honey.
KalaLea: Yes, yes, yes you are right.
KALALEA: Now before there was Greenwood, there was Indian Territory. That land, who inherited it, and who wanted it — is at the heart of this story.
It’s where the fates of Native and Black people intersected.
It’s also what drove so much of the cruelty, greed and corruption in the years leading up to the Massacre in Greenwood.
This is Blindspot: Tulsa Burning. The story of a community set on fire... and what ignited those flames. I’m KalaLea.
Episode 2: The Rise of Greenwood.
KALALEA: Let’s go back to the 1800’s, to the South.
Eli Grayson: I mean, when I think about Alabama and Southern Georgia and the panhandle of Florida, and you see those ancient trees and swamps and all this stuff.
KALALEA: Eli Grayson is a citizen of the Muscogee nation, and former President of the California Muscogee Creek Association.
Eli Grayson: And then you come to Indian territory where the Creek nation is -- though it’s beautiful to me -- is so completely foreign. And I just can't imagine just being dumped here -- there's nothing.
KALALEA: But that’s exactly what happened.
Eli Grayson: You are literally telling people who have been in a place on the planet for thousands of years, where you have buried your dead for thousands of years underneath your feet. You knew every river, you knew every turtle in that river. You knew every fish. Your language evolved from your environment there. And then all of a sudden, you are told you got to go.
KALALEA: Before they came to Oklahoma, five tribes -- the Muskogee Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations -- were living in the Southeastern United States. But their land was incredibly valuable, and white people wanted it. So Andrew Jackson and the U.S. government passed a series of laws that allowed them to take it. Between 1830 and 1850, more than 100,000 people were forced to leave their home and move North. They were heading to Osage land and unclaimed territory, on what became known as the Trail of Tears.
KalaLea: I feel like when I learned about the Trail of Tears like in elementary school, there was like one page in our history books about it, and so when I heard the phrase “Trail of Tears,” it just made me think that there were, y’know, Native people who had to make this really long journey, and they had to walk, and then they would rest, and walk some more and then --
Eli Grayson: No, honey. (laughs) That wasn't their reality.
KalaLea: Yeah, so what really happened?
Eli Grayson: It depends on what tribe, but the majority of the people that came out in different ways -- most were taken on riverboats. Shackled to riverboats. Out of Alabama to Pascagoula, from Pascagoula and Mobile over to New Orleans, placed on other ships, taken up the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River… And these are the same human cargo companies that would round up enslaved Africans and move them from plantation to plantation.
KALALEA: You know, I’ve always understood that the history of Black people in this country was intertwined with the history of Native Americans. But there’s something I didn’t know: During the Trail of Tears, Native Americans were not alone.
Eli Grayson: People don’t understand the importance of the slave to the tribal member. You have the Cherokee, the Muscogee Creek people, and then you have the Seminole Nation, the Choctaw and the Chickasaws. And one thing they all have in common was that they have a history with enslaving Black people.
When you think about a plantation in the South, you think about this -- give an example -- a white man with a plantation, he’s got 10,000 acres, and he's got 300 Black people enslaved on his 10,000-acre plantation growing cotton. He owned that dirt and he owned the slaves working on that dirt. And if he needed money, he can go to Chase Bank and say, I'm going to put up for collateral, my 10,000 acres that I own. That couldn't happen in Indian territory for this reason: no one owned land individually in Indian territory. Lands were owned in common by the tribal nation.
So what did the Indian slaver own? He owned the Negro. That was his wealth.
KALALEA: In the 1850’s, 100,000 people lived in Indian Territory -- and 14,000 of them were enslaved.
The institution of slavery was important to the 5 tribes. In fact, it was so important, some of them sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
When the North won, the Tribes were ordered to free their enslaved people and give them citizenship. These people were called “Freedmen.” They farmed on the communally owned land, served in tribal governments, and worked as interpreters.
In order to understand what happened in Greenwood, we need to understand what led to it.
And these Freedmen are the key to that -- without them, without their land -- Greenwood would never have grown to be what it was.
OK, at the same time as all of this is happening: the end of the Civil war, emancipation… something else was surfacing, too. Something really big.
When the five tribes came to Oklahoma, the area seemed like a wasteland -- wide, flat, with strange black liquid, oozing from below the rocks and leaking into rivers.
Even the Indian Agents, who were emissaries from the US government that worked with the tribes, found the landscape unwelcoming. They wrote letters back to Congress and the US war department...
Eli Grayson: ...saying we can't breathe. It stinks here. We're stepping in black oil. This place is horrible.
That was during the Civil War. And right after that, the American Industrial Revolution happened and the need for oil became a necessity. As somebody said, “Didn’t we put those Creeks out there on all that black oil and all that gas?”
KALALEA: Almost overnight, the value of Indian Territory skyrocketed. That’s when the U.S. government returned to a familiar strategy: It passed a series of new laws — this time, Eli says, aimed at transforming Native culture from communal living into individualized land ownership.
Eli Grayson: And the white man's message was that you're going to have a greater economic opportunity that you didn't have before.
KALALEA: Now stick with me. Each tribal citizen received individual land allotments — at least 40 acres per person. Kind of their own version of 40 acres and a mule. This included Freedmen, descendents of African people enslaved by the tribes.
Then, in 1905, a Creek Indian woman by the name of Ida E. Glenn allowed a prospector to drill on her land allotment, about 15 miles south of Tulsa. Turns out, it sat squarely on top of one of the biggest known oil reserves in the country.
Within two years, the Glenn Pool Oil Fields were producing over 18 million barrels a year.
Eli Grayson: Tulsa became the Saudi Arabia of the world in those years. There was so much construction going on. And so when you look at the population census of Tulsa, like in 1900 -- it's like 1500 people. In 1920, it's up to 78,000, 79,000 people.
KALALEA: I bet you can guess what happened next. White settlers wanted that land, and they found a way to get it.
Eli Grayson: And here we are a hundred and 13 years, 14 years after the allotments and the Creek Nation today own about 1% of all the land that it owned prior to statehood in 1907.
KalaLea: How did that happen, Eli? What happened?
Eli Grayson: It's called Congress. And white folks in Congress wanting something from Indian people. I looked back at that and all the schemes and scams and witchcraft and everything else that they use with Hocus Pocus laws to dispossess the Indians, whether they were Black, white, or red from their lands.
KALALEA: And white legislators invented convoluted new laws to take that land — legally.
One of the most brazen schemes was something that came to be known as the “Guardianship Racket.”
Quraysh Ali Lansana: Land ownership laws in Oklahoma were pretty soft, pretty porous.
KALALEA: That’s Quraysh Ali Lansana. He teaches Africana studies and creative writing at Oklahoma State University, Tulsa.
Q: Anyone who was appointed by the courts could make a claim that these Native American parents, were incompetent or unfit to raise their children and to steward their land. And the court would just say, pretty much, ‘Okay, you now have custody of the children and the land.’
KALALEA: As part of the Guardianship Racket, people -- mostly white -- would petition to gain control of those children, and the lands they owned, by claiming that the child’s parents weren’t fit to take care of them.
Q: The courts generally granted those petitions based on even flimsy claims of incompetence or unfair treatment or that the parents were insane. And then they would become the new guardians of the land and the children. And then they would do what they would with the children, and strike it rich via oil or it was fertile land for grazing of cattle, and the Native American folks who lost their land were just out, just, you know, now poor and without property.
One of the more famous cases was a Creek Freedman, Warrior A. Rentie. Rentie’s family owned 1600 acres about $120,000 per year in royalties.
KALALEA: That was a lot of money back then -- the equivalent of some $1.6 million dollars today.
Q: And this was a big deal because, you know, he was an attorney and a journalist so he had some means.
KALALEA: Now, Warrior A. Rentie wasn’t your typical turn of the century Oklahoman. He was Muscogee Creek, Black, and highly educated. And he was rich, mainly because he inherited a large estate from his sister, and each of his 8 children had their own land allotments.
Q: So, In 1910, Rentie received a letter that a new guardian was appointed to his children and he'd be losing his family and losing the land. This happened often, very often, but what made this case particularly of note is because Rentie was wealthy, Rentie was educated. Rentie was clearly not insane, clearly not a poor caretaker of his children or an irresponsible land owner by any stretch of the imagination and so the case was flimsy. White folks wanted the land and they went after this man, and Rentie knew how to take care of himself and his family.
KALALEA: And so, he did.
Q: He actually went to the officials, and said you would take my land and my children over my dead body.
He was arrested and spent a brief time in jail.
KALALEA: But Rentie had an important ally. A journalist from Muskogee, Oklahoma. His name was A.J. Smitherman.
Q: Smitherman is passionate. He's engaged. He is a leader in so many ways.
KALALEA: Except not in the ways that most Oklahomans were used to.
Q: This is a Black man with a great deal of agency, right? A great deal of power. And wasn't afraid to let folks know what it was on his mind.
KALALEA: Coming up: the story of A.J. Smitherman — what he did for Tulsa, and what Tulsa would do for him.
This is Blindspot.
KALALEA: This is Blindspot: Tulsa Burning. I’m KalaLea.
Warrior A. Rentie was in a bind. He was about to lose his wealth, his land, and, worse, his family.
But he had a devoted advocate who would go on to be a powerful force in the flourishing of Greenwood.
The journalist A.J. Smitherman.
Raven Majia Williams: There was no accountability. And my great-grandfather called it the dispossession of wealth. And that's exactly what was happening.
My name is Raven Majia Williams. And my great-grandfather is A.J. Smitherman.
KALALEA: Smitherman saw the guardianship laws as just another scheme by the state to give white people the resources and legal cover to seize Black and Native land.
He was also a practicing attorney. He took up Rentie’s case and won. During that investigation, he uncovered more than 3,000 other cases in the region, amounting to over 100 million dollars, stolen from Native children. He wrote about it in the local newspaper.
Smitherman (Actor): The biggest game of graft in the state today is the guardianship graft…. They have “Jim Crowed” us, attempted to disenfranchise us, taxed us without giving us representation, and after doing all of this they are clamoring to be guardians of our children -- the children of the race they have so grossly wronged.
Raven: It became a worldwide known scandal, because Oklahoma was one of the largest metropolises of oil in the world. And that's, I think, the beginning of my great grandfather's realization of just how much you can influence things using a newspaper.
KALALEA: A.J. Smitherman was born in Alabama, in 1883, less than twenty years after the abolition of slavery. His parents named him Andrew Jackson, like the president. And when he was a baby, his family moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma. His father worked as a coal miner and his mother, a school teacher.
In a way, Smitherman was a child of Oklahoma. He was European, Native and African — just like a lot of people there. But in the eyes of the state, he was Black and subject to all the restrictions that came with it.
Smitherman went to college, then law school — a rarity for a Black man at that time. He had a powerful voice, in person and on the page.
Smitherman (Actor): The saddest and bitterest time in the life of the American negro is that time each year when he is called on to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars into the treasury of a government which he has little or no reputation.
Q: He was unafraid to speak his truth, to speak his mind, to share his opinions, and he was bold and therefore considered dangerous in that regard.
KALALEA: Quraysh Ali Lansana has been studying Smitherman for decades. Back when he was a young journalism student, he became fascinated by Smitherman’s skill and versatility as a writer.
Q: And, not only was he writing really, really forward-thinking progressive op-ed pieces about the state of law regarding race and class… But he was also writing poetry about everything from the law, regarding land ownership to oil to guardianship — to how our Black veterans were treated upon their return from World War I.
Smitherman (Actor): I ask no special favors;
Nor seek for mine the best;
I simply plead for justice for
My own with all the rest
What right have you to curtail me?
Or I to hinder you?
A right that's good for one should be
For all, not a few.
KALALEA: In 1913, A.J. Smitherman decided to leave small-town Muskogee and go to Tulsa. He wanted to start his own newspaper. It was like California during the gold rush. Oil found on Native land was lifting up the entire region. And so the story goes, a Black man bought A LOT of land from a Cherokee woman, and that area was the beginning of Greenwood.
When Smitherman arrives, the streets are loud and bustling — crowded with people and wagons. And every few blocks, a family drives by in their brand new Model T Ford. Children fill their bellies with candies and sodas at the Williams’ Confectionery while their parents puff on cigars and cigarettes. On Thursday nights, jazz bands play the latest tunes in the original Cotton Club. Sundays are reserved for church, family and the best cuts of meat. The Dreamland Theater features vaudeville shows and screens silent movies featuring Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.
Another local jewel is the brand new Booker T. Washington High School, which rivals the best white schools in the state. For a young, ambitious man like A.J. Smitherman, Greenwood is ripe with opportunity.
So, on April 11, 1913, he publishes the inaugural edition of The Tulsa Star — one of the first Black daily papers in the United States.
Smitherman (Actor): Salutation! The Star comes to the citizens of Tulsa full of its sense of duty and wide awake to the grave of responsibility devolved upon it…. We shall ask for and expect the cooperation of the best element of both races in our work here, and shall endeavor to maintain the friendly relationship between the two races.
KALALEA: The Tulsa Star launched just as Greenwood was becoming a destination for people from all over the country — mostly Black, but also white folks who were curious about the music scene, the food, or looking for the best mechanic in town.
Victor Luckerson: Greenwood before the massacre was a Black community on the rise. That's how I would describe it.
My name is Victor Luckerson. I'm a journalist and author. I’m living in Tulsa working on a book about Black Wall Street.
KalaLea: So what have you learned, how would you describe Greenwood, what was it like there?
Victor: The story of Greenwood is so complex and there's so much tragedy and trauma as part of it, but also so much inspiration. You saw all kinds of different businesses, from barbershops to beauty salons, doctors offices, dentist offices.
KALALEA: Smitherman opened his printing press with a loan from a local businessman. His new facility was worth more than $40,000, a big accomplishment for the son of a coal miner.
The Tulsa Star reported on the life of Greenwood -- and was a key booster in the community. Whenever a shiny new brick building went up, Smitherman would run a formal announcement. He also printed ads from all the new and thriving businesses.
Victor has been studying maps and going deep into the archives of the Star.
Victor: So it was always kind of fun to those sort of more upscale businesses… like a croquet garden or they had, like, a furrier and a jeweler.
Ladies and Gents, Come on down to Williams’ Furniture Store "Even when you want furniture bad ... you want it GOOD."
And If you're hungry, North Greenwood Grocery Store has "Fine Staple Groceries of All Kinds"
or try Ragland and Ellis, for waffles and plenty of other good things to suit the most fastidious.
In town for a visit, stay at The Stradford - The Leading Colored Hotel of the Southwest
Then Stop by Ideal Cafe - with Home Cooking & Good Things to Eat
Hello, I'm L.S. Neal, Chiropractor and Graduate of Chicago University, make an appointment for all your back pain needs.
We're The Blue Goose Tailor Company - The Place That Satisfies Everybody
SY Woodward, here. The Shoe Doctor-- Bring your shoes to me.
Hey there! Come on by The Red Rose Cafe - A Nice Cool Place to Wait on the Jitney.
And last but not least, I'm Sam Smith, The Baggage Man. I go while others stand.
KALALEA: The Greenwood District occupied about 40 square blocks in northwest Tulsa, and its wealth climbed along with the rest of the city. There were at least three recorded millionaires and many more families worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. People started calling it “Black Wall Street.”
Of course, it wasn't perfect, the entire city of Tulsa was basically lawless.
Raven: This was definitely the wild wild Midwest ...
KALALEA: Raven Majia Williams, Smitherman’s great-granddaughter.
KalaLea: I mean, a lot of people talk about Greenwood and Black Wall Street and its success. But there was a lot of poverty there, there were a lot of, like, illegal businesses.
Raven: It definitely had gangsters. And those gangsters had casinos and, or gambling houses, as they called them. They had prostitution houses. When AJ Smitherman moved to Tulsa, he realized that he had only visited in the day, and he had not accurately assessed just the degree of corruption and the ill ways of Tulsa at night and how much the officials of the town were complacent, and/or participatory...
KALALEA: As the publisher of a daily newspaper, he had his eyes and ears in every corner of Greenwood. And he took it upon himself to clean up the streets.
Raven: He would literally put the address of prostitution house in his newspaper and call out the commissioner like shut this place down.
Smitherman (Actor): No man could fight or die for a cause nobler and purer and more righteous than the fight we are making for pure homes and better moral conditions along east Archer street, especially in the vicinity of the intersection with Cincinnati. This locality is a rendezvous for lewd women and their “pimps”... Tuesday afternoon, the editor of this paper had occasion to pass along the streets in this vicinity and to his unholy expectation saw a woman drunk, breaking the glass facing in the door and kicking the screen windows in, while she accompanied these wild weird gymnastic stunts with language unfit for human ears.
KALALEA: One day, Smitherman was walking down the street, and one of the gangsters he’d called out approached him.
Raven: And the guy told him, ‘If you put my name in your paper, you're gonna be a dead man.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I'm gonna put your name in the paper in the biggest print that I have, tomorrow, so you must not know me like that.’
Smitherman (Actor): EDITOR THREATENED WITH VIOLENCE! The editor was halted on the street by one Charley Gibson, who demanded to know who wrote the article which appeared in last week’s issue of the Star about him...
Raven: He drove that guy out of town and shut down his card house, his gambling house. But it also let people know that he wasn't going anywhere, that if anything, they were going to go somewhere. And he was gonna hold them accountable in print.
Smitherman (Actor): The Star is for a better and greater Tulsa. We are here to stay, and we will do our part to make this a better place to live in.
KALALEA: Greenwood took care of itself — it had to. People there were constantly lobbying the city of Tulsa for access to basic services — like paved roads and sewer lines — municipal resources that they had paid taxes for.
At the same time, Eli Grayson told me that Black wealth added to Greenwood’s prosperity.
Eli Grayson: Back in those days, because of Jim Crow laws, Black people could only spend money among Black people. They couldn't go to the white store, Macy's. They had to spend it in the Black communities. And that dime that they spent there on a Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon, went into that community, stayed in that community, rotated in that community up to 19 times.
KALALEA: Quraysh Ali Lansana.
Q: The fact that O. W. Gurley lent J.B. Stradford money, then Stradford loaned AJ Smitherman money. And that a dollar bill could start at O.W. Gurley's business at 101 North Greenwood, at the corner of Greenwood and Archer, at sunrise and travel all the way up to Pine and back and be exchanged only by Black hands.
We can't do that now. I mean, that doesn't even happen in Harlem. You know what I mean? (laughs) I don't know where -- that doesn’t happen in Bronzeville on the South side of Chi. I don't know anywhere that, that -- maybe Atlanta, right? But that's an extraordinary thing that happened in Greenwood from 1905 to 1921, that we kept our money in our communities. And the kind of wealth and economic independence born out of necessity, right? Born out of necessity of this Jim Crow segregation.
KALALEA: While looking through the old newspapers, I was amazed by the many giants of Black history who visited Greenwood: people like W.E.B DuBois and Bill Basie, before people called him 'Count Basie.' The artists and the thinkers who helped shape what Greenwood would become — a community so remarkable, so tenuous, constantly fighting for a fair shot.
But I find myself most drawn to the people who just…lived there. The everyday people pulled to Greenwood, hoping to lead full and happy lives.
One of the most compelling stories I encountered was of Mabel Little... She was just 17 years old when she left Boley, a small all-Black town in rural Oklahoma. She carried with her her meager belongings and about $1.50 in her change purse. Her mother didn’t have high hopes for her. But Mabel was determined to make a life for herself in the big city, and Greenwood had a vibrant reputation. She moved there in 1913, the same year as Smitherman.
When she got to Greenwood, what she found was a big disappointment. Yes, there were many upstanding residents like Gurley and Stradford but there was also a fair amount of crime. Even still, Mabel found work, and in 1914, she got married to a man named Pressley. She and her new husband now had $4 total to their names.
The newlyweds looked up to the many Black entrepreneurs they encountered in town. They wanted the same fancy clothes, cars and luxurious homes as their hardworking neighbors. They began saving, and working, and then saving some more until Mabel was able to open her own beauty parlor.
ACTOR: Little Rose Beauty Salon. Guaranteed to grow your hair long and beautiful.
KALALEA: By 1918, she served around 600 clients each month.
Washing and waving or straightening hair all day long. They called her the lady with the "magic touch" in the Magic City of Tulsa.
And Pressley, he was making moves too. He opened a restaurant, three blocks from Mabel’s beauty parlor, with his sister, Susie Bell.
ACTOR: Bell and Little Café. For nice things to eat we lead — and others follow. Meals and short orders. Courteous treatment and prompt service to all.
KALALEA: Its specialty: smothered steak (or chicken) with rice and brown gravy.
By 1921, their businesses were thriving — and so was Greenwood. It was a place of strife and beauty. Pain and pride. A place where people like Mabel and Pressley found just what they’d been looking for: a home, a life, and each other.
In Greenwood, they found a community where it was safe to be themselves, where they could realize the small and simple dreams that make up all of our lives. They chose to play by the rules and were winning.
It wouldn’t last.
That’s next time on Blindspot.
Blindspot: Tulsa Burning is a co-production of The History Channel and WNYC Studios, in collaboration with KOSU and Focus Black Oklahoma. Our team includes Caroline Lester, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Joe Plourde, Emily Mann, Jenny Lawton, Emily Botein, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Bracken Klar, Rachel Hubbard, Anakwa Dwamena, Jami Floyd, and Cheryl Devall. The music is by Hannis Brown, Am’re Ford, and Isaac Jones.
Our executive producers at The History Channel are Eli Lehrer and Jessie Katz. Raven Majia Williams is a consulting producer.
Special thanks to Dr. Barbara Nevergold, Myrna Colette Magliulo, Kelly Gillespie, Jodi-Ann Malarbe, Jennifer Lazo, Andrew Golis, Celia Muller, Les Ramirez, Vanessa Adams-Harris, and to Victor Luckerson -- he writes an incredible newsletter about neglected Black History called “Run it Back.”
Maurice Jones was the voice of A. J. Smitherman, and you also heard the voices of Terrence McKnight, Dar Salam Riser, Quinton Chandler, Javana Mundy, Stevan Smith, Tangina Stone, Emani Johnston, and Christine Johnston.
And I’m KalaLea, thank you for listening.