O.W Gurley | The Visionary

O. W. Gurley (1868-1935)

Often remembered as the founder of Tulsa's Black Wall Street. O.W Gurley was a visionary, real estate investor, educator, and pioneer. Keep reading to learn more about his journey.

O.W Gurley overview

Born: December 25, 1868, Huntsville, Alabama, United States
Died: 1935, Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
Known for: Greenwood District, Tulsa, aka "Black Wall Street"


Early Life

Ottowa Gurley grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and was born on Christmas Day 1868 to freed slaves. He self-educated and married Emma, his childhood sweetheart. After teaching for a while, he joined the USPS. At age 21, O.W. Gurley participated in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush settling in Perry, Oklahoma.  In Perry, he served as the principal of the local school and ran a general store. Gurley began hearing about the oil being struck in Tulsa and the wealth being made. He eventually bought an additional 40 acres in Tulsa, in 1906, imposing a restrictive covenant, allowing the land only to be sold to Black/African Americans. This settlement came to be known as, “Little Africa” or “Black Wall Street" or "Greenwood".

OW Gurley the Founder of Tulsa's Black Wall Street

The 1921 Tulsa Massacre

Before the 1921 Tulsa Massacre damaged his land and caused him to flee, Ottowa or O.W. Gurley was one of Tulsa's wealthiest men. Tulsa's racial tensions flared on May 30, 1921, after the Red Summer of 1919. Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, was accused of sexually assaulting Sarah Page, a white woman. A white mob formed to lynch Rowland, who was in custody at the county courtroom. Gurley, a black sheriff's officer, tried to calm racial tensions. When Blacks gathered outside the county courthouse to protect Rowland from execution, a fight broke out between a white man and a black man, resulting in the Tulsa Massacre. By the end of the Massacre on June 2, roughly 300 Black people had been killed, Black Wall Street had been burnt, and Gurley had lost nearly $200,000 of his fortune.

Gurley was jailed for instigating violence but enlisted the help of two other Black leaders, J.B. Stradford and A.J. Smitherman, to get him out. Once released he fled Tulsa and established a modest motel with his wife in Los Angeles. O.W. Gurley died at 67 years old 14 years later.

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