by Carlos Moreno
On a warm summer Tuesday evening on June 1st, 1971, dozens of parishioners and community members gathered at Mt. Zion Baptist Church to hear Mabel Little speak. W.D. Williams, son of John and Loula Williams and history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, hosted the event and introduced Ms. Little, who spoke to the audience about her early life, her experiences before and after the Race Massacre of 1921, and delivered a message of hope and resilience to younger generations. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the Massacre. It broke many decades of silence among the Black community who were ignored and told their stories were false. There were only two white people in attendance at the event that night: Tulsa World reporter Ann Patton and writer Ruth Sigler Avery, who was allowed to tape-record the event.
Little was not an ordained minister, but through the old scratchy-sounding cassette recording emanates a voice as clear, steadfast, and inspiring as any silver-tongued pastor. That night, she spoke of her early life growing up in Texas, her education in Boley, Oklahoma, and the success she built after moving to Greenwood. She spoke of her struggles in putting her life back together after losing her home and businesses in the Massacre and losing her husband, Pressley, to tuberculosis in 1927. Her voice rose and took on the tone of a powerful sermon as she spoke of the resilience of the Black community and the importance of preserving a legacy of excellence and entrepreneurship. To Mabel Little, the key to her success and the success of Greenwood was a smart mind for business and an unrelenting spirit. In its coverage of the evening, the Oklahoma Eagle named the event, “Celebration Tuesday” in honor of Little’s contributions to the Greenwood community, but also in recognition of Reverend Calvin G. McCutchen’s 14 years of leadership as head pastor and the church’s rebuilding, completed in 1952. After decades of struggle to rebuild and pay its debts from its original construction in 1921, the church was beginning to grow and thrive again.
Early Life in Texas
Mabel Bonner was born in Spring, Texas, on October 4th, 1896. Her maternal grandparents, Zack and Caroline Brooks, were emancipated slaves. Zack Brooks was the son of his slavemaster. He was given a cow as an inheritance when his father died. He was able to leverage that small inheritance and what little he had to purchase a 500-acre farm. Brooks made sure he had multiple streams of income—operating a cotton gin, and running a grocery store and barbershop in Fulcher, Texas. Brooks also owned racehorses, which he let young Mabel care for and ride. Mabel started school at age four, in a one-room schoolhouse that doubled as the church on Sundays. The building was donated to the town by Zach Brooks and was named Zacharian Chapel.
Little dedicated her 1990 autobiography Fire on Mount Zion: My Life and History as a Black Woman in America to her grandmother. In her book, Little describes taking long walks with her grandmother and listening to her stories. Caroline told young Mabel that her destiny was to become a missionary.
Mabel’s biological Father, John Philip Bonner, died when she was two years old. Her mother, Casandra, remarried a man named Samuel Anderson and they lived in Fulcher, with Casandra’s parents. When Mabel was not in school, or riding her grandfather’s horses, or sitting at her grandmother’s feet to listen to stories, Mabel’s stepfather made her and her siblings work hard on the family’s farm. Mabel fed the chickens, turkeys, and geese. She and her older sister Ruth had to plant and harvest corn and cotton. Every day, the children walked a mile to fetch water from the nearest well and walked two miles to school. Casandra’s second marriage did not last long. In 1909, the couple separated, and the next year, Casandra, Mabel, and Ruth left Fulcher and moved to Boley, Oklahoma, where Casandra’s sister Lydia Taylor lived.
From Boley to Tulsa
Little described her time in Boley as exciting and inspiring, but she felt that there was not much of a future for her there. She wished to continue her education at Langston University. The school was founded in 1897 as the Colored Agricultural and Normal University in the town of Langston. Deciding in September of 1913 at age seventeen that she needed to leave Boley to pursue her dreams, Little bought a train ticket to Tulsa. She describes in her autobiography that on the day she arrived, the only contacts she knew in Tulsa—Johnny and Della Wells, classmates of her mother—would not offer her any help, nor anything to eat.
She met a young minister who had overheard the conversation between her and the Wells, and said that he would help her find a place to stay. The boarding house he found for her charged $1.50 a week, which was the only money Little had left in her purse. Hungry and tired after unpacking her bag, she walked to a café two blocks away from the boarding house. She struck up a conversation with the waiter, Pressley, and the evening became a story of love at first sight. She wrote in her autobiography, “I looked up at him and fell immediately in love with him, right then and there.” She was able to quickly find work at the Brady Hotel, earning twenty dollars a month. Pressley continued working at the café and shined shoes at a barbershop on the corner of Archer and Cincinnati. The shop was owned by Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s Reverend C.L. Netherland, where Pressley was a member. The couple were married at Mt. Zion on December 22nd, 1914.
Mabel and Pressley saw Greenwood grow and thrive around them, and they wanted to be a part of the entrepreneurial momentum. They managed to save up enough money to buy a three-room shotgun house. Pressley moved his shoe-shine operation into one of the rooms. Mabel opened a beauty shop in another, and the couple lived in the third room. At age fourteen, back in Boley, Little’s aunt Lydia taught her how to cut and style hair. After she opened her business in Tulsa, she received a certification from Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty course, and by 1918, her company was booming. Little relocated the Little Rose Beauty Salon to 612 E. Archer St. There, she hired a staff of three beauticians and had built a clientele of over six hundred. An article in Ebony magazine describes that Thursday nights were, “Maid’s Night Out” in Greenwood—the one day a week that servants of the white community would be allowed to take the evening off and enjoy themselves. Young ladies would come to Mabel Little to look their best, knowing that she had, “her magic touch.”
Little took her profession seriously. She took the state cosmetology certification test even though at the time, there was no requirement for salon operators to do so. She and other beauticians—black and white women—established a professional organization and created new guidelines and standards, elevating the profession. Her hard work paid off. By the middle of May 1921, Pressley and Mabel Little had finished building and furnishing a brand new five-bedroom home, and the couple bought a Model T Ford. Pressley was able to open his own restaurant, the Little Café, well-known for its special: smothered steak with rice and brown gravy. By this time, Mabel and Pressley also owned two rental houses. Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where they had been active members, had just finished construction as well in early April 1921.
On the night of May 31st, 1921, the Littles would lose everything that they had worked so hard to build. The Little Rose Beauty Salon and Little Café were destroyed, their home was completely looted and burned to the ground, and their car was stolen. In her speech at Mt. Zion in 1971, Mabel described that after the Massacre, she and Pressley had only fifty dollars in cash left. But she was not one to have her spirit shaken. Like the rest of Greenwood, the Littles were determined to rebuild. They found odd jobs to scrape up enough money to build a modest three-room house. It would be three years before they had enough money to connect the house to the city water line and have running water and electricity.
The only work that Pressley could get after the Massacre were manual labor jobs. He worked in harsh conditions, clearing the debris from damaged homes, and helping to rebuild the neighborhood. In a 2001 Tulsa World article, Mabel recalled, “I never shed a tear over what we lost. But my husband, he just couldn’t get over it.” Between the mental toll of losing everything he owned, and the physical toll of working construction jobs, Pressley’s health took a bad turn. He fell ill with the flu, which later developed into tuberculosis. The only hospital that could treat tuberculosis and would accept Black patients was in Clinton, Oklahoma, about 80 miles west of Oklahoma City. It would be three years before the couple could get him a bed at the Clinton Sanitarium, and by this time, there was not much the doctors could do other than make his stay there comfortable for the few months he was there. Pressley passed away in 1927.
Shortly after Pressley’s death, Mrs. Little’s sister and her four children came to live with her. The Littles did not have any children of their own, but between 1918 and 1927, they adopted eleven children. After her husband’s death, Little rebuilt her salon so that she and her family would have an income. She continued to rebuild her home and immersed herself in the life of her church. In 1928, Mt. Zion’s congregation split over disagreements about whether to pay back part of the debt that was granted to the church by the Jewish community. Until Rev. W.E. Bradford began his leadership of the church in 1929, Mt. Zion members met at Mabel Little’s house. The church struggled through the years of the Great Depression, but in 1937, finally began to grow again and raise funds for constructing a new building.
Little worked briefly as an aircraft assembly worker during World War II, becoming one of the first mechanics at Douglas Aircraft bomber plant in Tulsa. She describes in her autobiography that her job was relocated to Wichita, Kansas, and then to the Lockheed Vega factory in Burbank, California. At Lockheed, she learned to weld and rose to the rank of inspector, supervising her section of factory workers on the graveyard shift.
Advocate for Tulsa’s Schools
After the war, Little returned to Tulsa and to her salon. By this time, Greenwood had grown to be bigger and better than before the Massacre. She recalls in her autobiography, “By 1936, Tulsa had the largest black business section in the United States.” But building back her fortune was not Little’s focus. She became more involved in her church and dedicated to the cause of improving education in Tulsa, and improving conditions in North Tulsa. As prosperous as Greenwood became, Tulsa was still two cities—black and white—and Mabel Little fought to create a city that would provide equal opportunity to everyone.
The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 paved the way for ending segregation in public schools, but by the late 1960s, Tulsa Public School (TPS) district had done next to nothing to move in this direction. Pressured by the federal Tenth Circuit Court, TPS was forced to create a plan to integrate its schools. Their solution was to involuntarily transfer teachers to change the staff ratio of black and white staff at its schools, close George Washington Carver school and Booker T. Washington High School, and bus students to formerly all-white schools. Needless to say, this did not sit well at all with North Tulsa residents. Tulsa World reporter Laureen Gilroy wrote a short history of the campaign to reopen Carver in a 1993 article. Contentious school board meetings and town halls meetings led to a citizen-led effort to create a better plan for desegregating Tulsa’s schools.
In his book Riot and Remembrance, James S. Hirsch described that shortly after the TPS Board voted to close Carver, nine protestors staged a sit-in at the Educational Service Center. The protest lasted two days. Among the protesters were Mabel Little (75 years old at the time) Nancy McDonald, and Julius Pegues, who said of Little, “She kept reminding us that God always answers prayers, and not to be afraid of anything because God is with us.” Little was arrested, and Oklahoma Eagle publisher and attorney Ed Goodwin posted her bail. Nancy McDonald recalled of the opponents to racial integration, “I had never experienced such hate.” Little had a particular interest in saving Carver school, having personally seen George Washington Carver speak twice: once in Boley, Oklahoma, and again when Carver spoke at the dedication of the school in 1928.
Singer Rebecca Ungerman interviewed Nancy McDonald in 2014 about the desegregation of Tulsa Public Schools and the re-opening of Carver in 1971. The school became Tulsa’s first middle school and McDonald and Little were instrumental in recruiting black and white families to the newly integrated schools. McDonald and Little went on to spearhead many other innovative programs that TPS was reluctant to adopt then, but are today recognized as significant achievements. Magnet schools, parent volunteer programs, and the first early childhood education program in the state, launched at Hawthorne Elementary, were all initiatives that McDonald and Little worked to create.
The years 1970 and 1971 were busy for Mabel Little. While Tulsa Model Cities provided the funding for school desegregation (TPS did not offer any funding), it was the same program that resulted in the demolition of Mabel Little’s home and salon—again. For losing everything she owned a second time, Little was compensated $16,000 by the City of Tulsa. She was staunchly opposed to urban renewal, observing that the building of the Inner Dispersal Loop highway system destroyed the businesses and homes in Greenwood that the community worked tirelessly to rebuild after the Massacre. She attended City Council and public town hall meetings, speaking out against what was seen by the rest of the city as positive forward progress. In the Thursday, April 9th, 1970 issue of the Tulsa Tribune, Little remarked, “You destroyed everything we had. I was here in it, and the people are suffering more now than they did then.” More than the loss of property, Little lamented the loss of Greenwood’s legacy. In her autobiography, as in her speech at Mt. Zion in 1971, she emphasized the importance of the younger generations to learn business and become self-sufficient. With Greenwood destroyed a second time, the Black community would have few examples of its greatness before and after 1921.
Another mixed blessing was the dedication of the Mabel Little Heritage House, completed in 1986. The house belonged to Sam and Lucy Mackey and was one of the first burned in the Massacre of 1921. The Mackeys were determined to rebuild on the same site, and construction was completed in 1927. Over the decades, the house had fallen into disrepair. After an article written by Ann Patton in the Oklahoma Eagle about the Mackey home in 1969, and a campaign led by Julius Pegues to save it from demolition, enough money was raised to restore the home. It was dedicated as the Mabel Little Heritage House in a ceremony in 1985. While she was appreciative of the honor, she also resented the fact that the Mackey house was owned by a white family, not a Black family. She wrote in her book that Sam and Lucy Mackey and their children kept the shades to their house drawn and did not interact with the Black community.
Little was never one to back down from controversy. She always spoke her mind, and people listened. She was fond of saying, “God gave me this mouth, and I am going to use it.” She was a cornerstone of Mt. Zion Baptist church for more than 85 years, organizing events, fundraisers, youth education programs, and women’s groups for the betterment of the community. Before Mabel Little and Nancy McDonald’s collaboration to make improvements to Tulsa Public schools, there was no such thing as a magnet school program. There were no early childhood education programs. Signs at the front of the schools were posted, saying, “parents not allowed.” Today, magnet schools such as Booker T. Washington, volunteer programs like Reading Partners, and the city’s early childhood programs are seen as the district’s greatest achievements and are recognized throughout the country.
She was mother to twelve adopted children, but also mentor, and “mother” to generations of students at Mt. Zion and Booker T., including Wayman Tisdale, whose photo appears in Little’s book. After a successful career playing basketball for Oklahoma University, the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team, the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, and Phoenix Suns, Tisdale went on to have an equally impressive music career until his passing in 2009 due to the treatments he was receiving for bone cancer.
It was Mabel Little’s lifelong dream to graduate from Langston University. Her dream finally came true upon the completion of her autobiography, written in 1990. Langston published the book and awarded Little with an honorary degree. She was 94 years old. She passed away on January 13th, 2001.
Photo courtesy of Langston University