The Victory of Greenwood: John and Loula Williams

Photograph of John & Loula Williams courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.

Tulsa historian Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land opens with the story of a young Bill Williams asking his father why they relocated from Mississippi to Oklahoma. “Well,” his father answered, “I came out to the Promised Land.” For black freedmen and young black men and women moving out of formerly Confederate states, Indian Territory was that promised land; a place to find that piece of the American dream. 

John Wesley and Loula Tom Williams were among Greenwood’s first residents. They met in John’s home state of Mississippi (Loula was born in Tennessee) and made their way to Tulsa in about 1903. The U.S. Census from 1910 lists the couple as being married for five years. Since there were no black doctors or hospitals in the neighborhood at the time, they traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas for Loula to give birth to their son William Danforth Williams, born on March 15th, 1905.

Entrepreneurial Success

John had a talent for machines. In 1909, he secured a position operating the steam-powered chilling equipment at The Thompson Ice Cream Company, located at 17 West Archer. His skill was in such demand and the job paid so well, that by 1911, the family purchased Greenwood’s first car: A brand new Chalmers “Thirty Pony Tonneau,” named for its 30 horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine. The car cost $1,600 at the time (about $53,000 in today’s dollars). It boasted a three-speed manual transmission, comfortable leather seats, and a top speed of 50 miles per hour. One of the most well-recognized photographs of Greenwood’s prosperity features John and Loula in the prized automobile dressed elegantly and 6-year-old William in the back seat looking at the camera. John wasted no time learning to do all the repairs and maintenance on the car, soon finding himself earning money on the side working on other people’s cars as well. By 1912, he had such an extensive clientele that he resigned from his job at the ice cream company to open his own auto repair garage. Williams’ One Stop Garage, at 420 E. Archer St., served both black and white car owners from all over Tulsa.

Loula Williams also made a career change. Leaving her teaching job in Fisher, OK, located just west of Sand Springs, she opened a confectionary on the first floor of a three-story building the Williams’ built, at 102 N. Greenwood Ave., from the profits of the auto mechanic shop. The family lived on the second floor and rented the third floor spaces as offices for attorneys. The Williams Confectionery was Loula’s great pride. The store sold candy, ice cream, and featured a fully-stocked soda fountain. Her shop quickly became the most popular hangout for teens and young couples of all races. Journalist Tim Madigan writes in his book The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 that the word around Tulsa was that there were more proposals for marriage that happened at Williams Confectionery than any other place in the city.

By 1914, the Williams were indeed living life in the Promised Land that John had described to his son. John’s auto repair shop made a decent profit and the couple earned money from the confectionary as well as the commercial rental business. The family set their sights on a new entrepreneurial goal: opening a movie theatre. The Empress Theatre opened around June 1913, at 17 W. 3rd Street. At this time, the movie industry was in its infancy. Hollywood, California was just beginning to produce its first films. With so few films to show, early movie theatres were built with performance stages and featured musical and vaudeville acts as well as films. Loula Williams opened Williams Dreamland Theatre in 1914, at 127 N. Greenwood. The new theatre had a seating capacity of 750, with movie tickets costing 15 cents. That same year, Tate Brady opened the Convention Hall (later named the Tulsa Theatre) just a few blocks to the west.

Loula’s entrepreneurial spirit paid off. The Dreamland Theatre quickly became just as popular an attraction as the confectionary. The movie industry boomed as well. After Dreamland Theater’s first year in business, film studios were forming all around the country. Not only was film becoming more established as an industry, but it was also becoming quite diverse. All-black film production companies were finding great success during these pioneering years. Among these were the Lincoln Motion Picture Company based in Omaha, Nebraska, Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, and Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Florida. Norman Studios’ first film with an all-black cast was The Green-Eyed Monster, a 1919 action film in which two feuding railroad tycoons sought to settle a fight over their shared love interest by racing their trains. The man with the winning train would win the girl. Movie posters promised “5 SMASHING REELS OF THRILLS! ACTION! PUNCH!” and was wildly popular with black audiences for many years.

Dreamland Burning

One can imagine that The Green-Eyed Monster might have been showing at Williams Dreamland Theatre on the evening of May 31st, 1921. Loula and her 16-year-old son William were working at the confectionary that evening. In a 1977 interview with Jan Jennings Sparks conducted for the Tulsa Historical Society, William describes that he was busy cleaning tables and helping close the shop for the night. By this time, crowds were beginning to gather at Mann’s Grocery Store and the The Tulsa Star newspaper offices, sharing news about Dick Rowland’s arrest. William wanted to see for himself what was going on, but his mother told him to stay in the building.

Meanwhile, O.B. Mann stormed into the Dreamland Theatre, interrupting the film, announcing, “Turn up these lights! The movie is over, ’cause I got news! The whites are getting ready to hang a Negro boy downtown… We’re going to go down and stop it, and if you want to join us, come on!” Henry Sowders, the theatre’s manager and a loyal white employee of Loula’s, evacuated and closed the theatre as A.J. Smitherman, O.B. Mann, John Williams, and others armed themselves and drove to the courthouse to confront the sheriff and demand Rowland’s release. The first time they arrived at the courthouse, the group left peacefully after a talk between O.W. Gurley and Sheriff Willard M. McCullough. The second time, a larger group of Greenwood men arrived at the courthouse at about 10 pm, and a fight broke out when one of the men from the white mob—by this time about two thousand in number—tried to grab O.B. Mann’s gun. The gun went off accidentally, but that’s all that was needed to spark an all-out war. Hundreds of shots were fired within seconds. 

Overwhelmingly outnumbered, the group of black men fled back to Greenwood. However, the fighting was far from over. The white mob chased the men and a fierce gun battle began at the intersection of 2nd and Cincinnati. As the night went on, the fight moved into deep Greenwood. By midnight, John Williams arrived back at his building at Greenwood and Archer. From his 2nd story windows, he had a vantage point from which to defend his home and his neighborhood. While he fired his shotgun and pistol from his bathroom window, young William helped stockpile ammunition and reload the guns. By midnight, the white attackers had begun setting fire to homes and businesses. It was at this point that John told his wife to leave and go to her mother’s house. The fighting went on into the early hours of the morning.

The next morning, John and William heard the sound of airplanes overhead. They went downstairs and into the street to see for themselves: planes dropping fire bombs onto the buildings in the neighborhood. At the sight of this, they decided they needed to flee. John and William split up. Williams described the scene: “They never did catch my dad. He got to Pine St. One of his business associates was white, and took him to his home.”

However, they did catch William. The National Guard were dispatched to Greenwood at 5:00 am that morning to arrest black residents of Greenwood and detain them. William fled north along Greenwood Ave., but was caught on Easton St. “There were two or three men. I was running and ran right into a man with a shotgun. [He] pointed it at me and, ‘Put ’em up, there, n*****!’ So I put up my hands, and they searched me, and took me down the alley and to Greenwood.” The National Guard had rounded up several men and boys and marched them west along the Frisco tracks, past burning homes and buildings, taking them to Conventional Hall to be held there. William described that the group was marched right past his home. Looking up into the broken upstairs windows, William spotted a white man looting their home, holding his mother’s handbag and her prized fur coat.

The National Guard would not let anyone leave Convention Hall until a white person could vouch for them. Fortunately, Henry Sowders knew this and was able to arrange for William’s release. However, they could not find William’s mother. On the morning of June 2nd, the damage was done, the fighting and looting had stopped, and on the radio, William heard that it was safe to go downtown again. Having seen with his own eyes his parents’ buildings reduced to rubble, he knew he needed to find work somehow. Spotting a help wanted sign in a cafeteria near 3rd and Main, William asked if he could work a shift washing dishes. After his shift, he was paid $1.50. As he was walking out of the cafeteria, by miraculous coincidence, he walked right into his mother.

As soon as the two were reunited, Loula went to see her lawyer to see what could be done about the family’s destroyed properties. Fortunately for Loula, she also owned two other theatres (both also named Dreamland), one in Okmulgee and one in Muskogee. While fire insurance companies refused to pay for business losses due to the Massacre, the family still had income from the two out-of-town movie theatres. Loula’s family also owned a house further north that had not been damaged in the fires, so John, Loula, and William were able to stay there until they were able to figure out their next steps. The family also lived in a tent for a time while Loula invested money and made plans to rebuild the theatre.

Williams Family Legacy

The September 14th, 1922 issue of the Black Dispatch in Oklahoma City proudly announced the rebuilding of the Williams building and the Williams Dreamland Theatre. “It is a pleasing sight for the visitor who knows Tulsa as it stood in ashes one year ago to return to the same spot and view two blocks of solid business blocks. The rugged faith and courage of the black man were never better expressed than in the re-erection of the homes and business property of the Negroes of Tulsa.”

In his 1977 interview for the Tulsa Historical Society, William described that the family’s new home was built on the second story of the new Dreamland Theatre. The family survived and rebuilt, but were never able to reach the level of prosperity they had before the Massacre. William remarked that during the Great Depression, the family had to sell their buildings in order to make ends meet. Letterhead from the Dreamland Theatre from November 24th, 1927 reads, “Under New Management” with the name W.M. Cherry listed as the manager. During the struggle to rebuild, Loula fell ill and passed away in September of 1927. John Wesley lived until January of 1940 and is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery, east of Turley.

William graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1922 and received his bachelor’s degree in Business Education from Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he met his wife Mary S. Robinson. The couple returned to Tulsa in 1928 and William taught at Booker T. Washington (BTW) for 42 years, retiring in 1970. William and Mary had two children: Anita and David. Anita followed in her father’s footsteps, graduating from BTW, and then Hampton Institute. She became one of the first African-American women in the United States to graduate with a Doctorate in Optometry and practiced in Tulsa for over 50 years. She just recently passed in January of last year.

In 2011, Anita and David collaborated with the Smithsonian Museum to contribute a large collection of photographs and artifacts owned by their grandparents. John and Loula Williams will forever be remembered among the great founders of Black Wall Street and as a symbol of its prosperity and resilience both before and after 1921.