The Victory of Greenwood: J. B. Stradford

by Carlos Moreno

On the morning of Tuesday, December 1st, 1908, J.B. Stradford and his wife Augusta boarded a train from Kansas on the Katy line to Tulsa, Oklahoma. They refused to ride in the furthest train car, reserved for Black passengers, behind the cars that carried animals. The conductor wired the train station in Bartlesville, where the couple was pulled off the train and arrested for violating Oklahoma’s Jim Crow law. It did not matter that both were college graduates or that Stradford was a well-established attorney and wealthy real estate developer. That  morning, the only thing that mattered to law enforcement was that they were Black and that they wished to be treated better than the animals riding the train.

Seven years later in the Tulsa Star, Stradford wrote, “To be a man has been my life long desire. To be endowed with all the rights and privileges that any other citizen of this nation has is a question which has agitated the Afro-Americans since the days of Reconstruction.” Stradford is most well-known for the fortune he built in Greenwood, but he was also unrelenting in his battle for racial equality. He lost everything he owned during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and never recovered his fortune. Despite not living to see his dream fulfilled, Stradford left a legacy of excellence that continues to the present day.

Striving for Excellence 

John the Baptist (J.B.) Stradford was born in Versailles, KY on September 10th, 1861, the son of Julius Caesar (J.C.). Julius was enslaved, and his owner never gave him a last name. During J.C.’s time in slavery, his owner’s daughter befriended him and taught him to read. In 1863, J.C. read about the Emancipation Proclamation and petitioned his owner for freedom for himself and his new family. 

J.C. forged a travel permission slip, signing his owner’s name, and escaped to Stratford, Ontario. Changing one letter, he adopted the surname of Stradford. In Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, James S. Hirsh writes that J.C. worked to earn enough money to return to Kentucky so that he could secure the legal documents to declare his family free.

J.C. made sure that he passed on the lessons he learned to his family. His firstborn, J.B. Stradford, took these lessons to heart and educated himself as well as becoming an advocate for himself and others. Stradford is described in Shomari Wills’ Black Fortunes as “tall and sinewy with a prominent square jaw and piercing black eyes.” He enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio. There, he met the woman who would become his wife, Augusta. The couple were  the first Black students to be admitted to and graduate from  Oberlin. 

Stradford went on to acquire  his law degree from Indiana University at the age of 38 and began practicing law in Indianapolis. He also launched his first hotel venture, investing in a hotel in Alexandria, Indiana in 1899. When the hotel went out of business a year later, Stradford began to look for other business opportunities and heard of the rapidly growing all-black towns that were beginning  to thrive in Indian Territory. 

Building an Empire

Upon his arrival in Greenwood, Stradford quickly found a kindred spirit in O.W. Gurley. The two men formed an informal business partnership by investing in land, building rental homes, and selling it to other Black entrepreneurs. Over the next 18 years, Stradford amassed a sizable fortune. In The Events of the Tulsa Disaster, Mary E. Jones Parish documented the value of Stradford’s home at $125,000, the Stradford Hotel at $50,000, and another 2-story brick residence on N. Elgin Ave. at $3,000. However, his empire was much more substantial. Hirsch’s Riot and Remembrance records that Stradford also owned some two dozen rental houses and rooming houses, including a 16-room brick apartment building, pool halls, shoeshine parlors, and bathhouses, from which he earned an income of nearly $500 a month (the equivalent of about $8,500 in today’s dollars).

Without a doubt, Stradford’s crowning achievement was the Stradford Hotel at 301 N. Greenwood. According to the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, when the hotel opened on June 1st, 1918, it was the largest black-owned and operated hotel in America. He envisioned his hotel as the pinnacle of his dreams, remarking, “The Stradford would be a monument to the thrift, energy, and business tact of the race in Tulsa [and] to the race in the state of Oklahoma.” 

Fighting for Civil Rights

On August 4th, 1916, the City of Tulsa passed an ordinance stating that people of one race could not reside on any block where three quarters or more of the residents were of another race. Two days later, Stradford led a protest at the Dreamland Theatre with six hundred Black citizens in attendance.

Stradford and his son Cornelius drafted a petition to the mayor of Tulsa saying that the ordinance would “cast a stigma upon the colored race in the eyes of the world; and to sap the spirit of hope for justice before the law from the race itself.” The plea fell on deaf ears.  The mayor’s office upheld the ordinance. When the Oklahoma Supreme Court invalidated the ordinance a year later, the law remained on the books. Housing segregation remained the law of the land in Tulsa until 1963.

In Wills’ book Black Fortunes, he describes Stradford as a follower of civil rights advocate W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and published the weekly magazine The Crisis. During the early part of the twentieth century, National Negro Business League and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington was seen as more moderate and tolerant of inter-racial collaboration and peace. In contrast, DuBois was seen as more radical and controversial.

The Crisis covered DuBois’ visit to Greenwood in March of 1921, which was sponsored by Tulsa Star head editor A.J. Smitherman and Stradford. The event was part of a nationwide tour to promote DuBois 1920 book, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. The book was undoubtedly controversial for its  time. Still, its chapters echo some of the same societal inequalities that Black communities struggle with today: structural racism, economic and racial inequality, and reproductive freedom for women. Then, as now, local politicians railed against these ideas, aghast that the Black community would dare assert their equality.

Stradford was not afraid to put himself on the line to prevent lynchings. In 1918, he turned back a lynching mob in Bristow, Oklahoma. Stradford and Smitherman, both attorneys, would sometimes defend victims through legal means, and sometimes by gathering a group of armed Black men to outnumber the lynch mob. Smitherman would then write about these incidents in his newspaper, the Tulsa Star. The 1920 article “Near Lynch Victim Proved to be an Innocent Man” is a prime example of this kind of advocacy. Lynchings were common during these years, perpetuated by law enforcement either turning a blind eye to lynchings or sometimes being willing participants. In mid-August 1920, there were two back-to-back lynchings: one involving a Black man in Oklahoma City named Claude Chandler, and the other involving a white man in Tulsa, Roy Belton. Tulsa Police Chief John Gustafson attended Belton’s lynching.

In April of 1921, a Black man named John McShane won a brawl against a white man. McShane was arrested and there were rumors that he would be lynched. A group of Black men fought to free McShane, and during the course of  the fighting, a deputy sheriff was shot in the abdomen. The white community became  outraged as a result. Stradford and Smitherman became even more adamant about stopping lynchings and holding the police accountable. Another article was written in the Tulsa Star and a slogan began to be repeated at Dreamland Theatre’s vaudeville shows: “Don’t let any white man run it over you, but fight.”

Defending Greenwood from the Massacre

It is little wonder then that when news of Dick Rowland’s arrest on the morning of May 31st, 1921 began to circulate in the Greenwood community, Stradford had absolutely no confidence that Chief Gustafson would do anything to protect the 19-year-old shoe-shiner from being lynched. Dedicated to stop the lynching, Stradford gathered a meeting at the Tulsa Star’s offices that evening, repeating his oft used statement about “blood in the streets.” Stradford wrote in his memoir that he declared to the nervous onlookers what he would do if there were a lynching: “If I can’t get anyone to go with me, I will go single-handed and empty my automatic into the mob and, then, resign myself to my fate.” His comments encouraged men, including WWI veteran and grocery store owner named O. B. Mann, to continue making trips to the courthouse throughout the night.

When the armed white mob moved from the courthouse and  began attacking Greenwood, Stradford fled to his hotel to defend it. Machine gun fire had shattered the windows of the hotel’s 2nd floor. Yet he stayed to fight back throughout the night. By morning, the National Guard arrived to evacuate the neighborhood. They negotiated with Stradford and those who had sought shelter at the hotel, telling them that the building would not be further damaged if they would just surrender and agree to be taken to Convention Hall. They subsequently agreed. However, the National Guard confiscated $2,000 of Stradford’s money and the Stradford Hotel was burned to the ground.

On June 6th, Stradford became the first person formally charged with “inciting a riot.” The penalty was life in prison or death. Local historian Steve Gerkin recounts the story of Stradford’s escape from Tulsa in This Land Press. Stradford stuffed $500 in cash in his pocket before climbing aboard the first train to Independence, Kansas. Shortly after arriving at his brother’s house in Independence, local police, at the request of Tulsa authorities, paid a visit to Stradford. Asked if he would turn himself in, he replied, “Hell, no.” Nonetheless, he was arrested and booked. 

Stradford was told to stay put and appear in court on June 10th. Instead, he called his son Cornelius Francis (C.F.) Stradford, a graduate of the Columbia School of Law, who lived in Chicago. After C.F. posted bond for his father, the two men headed for Chicago, ignoring the police’s demands. Once there, Stradford was able to successfully fight extradition to Tulsa.

Attempt to Rebuild in Chicago

Desiring to recreate his real estate empire , he formed a group of investors to participate in building a luxury hotel like the Stradford. Regrettably, the project ran out of money and the building was not completed. He did, however, construct a candy store, barbershop, and a small pool hall. His modest business holdings in Chicago reminded him of what once was.

Stradford lost more than money in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. He lost the sense of his place in society and struggled with the injustice done to him and the neighborhood he helped build. In his unpublished memoir, he wrote, “It is incredible to believe that in this civilized age that a white man could be so void of humanity.” He continued, “My soul cried for revenge and prayed for the day to come when I could personally avenge the wrongs which had been perpetrated against me.”

Stradford passed away in Chicago on December 22nd, 1935. His obituary in the Indianapolis Recorder mentions that months before his passing, he organized the Chicago Civil Rights League.

Stradford’s Lasting Legacy

Almost 70 years after the Massacre, family members fought to clear Stradford’s name. Cornelius E. Toole was a former NAACP lawyer and a Cook County, Illinois circuit court judge. He was also a great-grandson of J. B. Stradford. He and Ambassador Jewel Lafontant-Mankarious, Stradford’s granddaughter, contacted Oklahoma State Representative Don Ross to clear Stradford’s name. The details of this story appear in Jonathan Z. Larsen’s article “Tulsa Burning” in a 1997 issue of Civilization: Magazine Of The Library Of Congress.

Toole harbored resentment for the smearing of his relative’s name, the destroying of Stradford’s properties, and his dreams. Through impassioned communications with Mayor Susan Savage and Representative Ross in 1996, the 63-year-old former judge insisted that the charges against Stradford be dismissed. The decision rested on the shoulders of first-year District Attorney Bill LaFortune, who needed to render an opinion on a strictly legal question: Did the evidence support the notion that Stradford incited a riot? After all, as the evidence about the Massacre began to come to light, it was clear to LaFortune that Stradford was innocent of the charges against him, and the charges against him were dropped.

While J.B. Stradford was not able to rebuild his empire or live to see his name cleared, he left a legacy of excellence through his descendants’ many accomplishments. His son, C.F., became a co-founder of the National Bar Association and the Cook County Bar Association.

Jewel Stradford, C.F.’s daughter, married Jack Rogers, who had served in World War I as one of the first Tuskegee Airmen. At first, Jack was denied entrance to college because the school would not allow Black students. Rogers went home, put on his military uniform, and returned to the law school, declaring, “I just served my country. You are going to put me in this law school.” Subsequently, Jack Rogers and Jewel Stradford were among the first Black people to gain admittance to the University of Chicago School of Law.

Jewel had a brother, C.F., Jr., who owned a string of funeral homes and served as a criminal investigator for the State of Illinois. For more than thirty years, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has recognized distinguished attorneys and judges within the African-American community with the C.F. Stradford Award. 

When C.F., Jr.’s daughter Laurel was a little girl, her mother gave her a world map, bringing awareness to her place  in the world. Laurel became fascinated with exploring the world and has traveled to over 50 countries, lived in England, Morocco, and worked as a photographer, educator, and international representative for Revlon. Settling back in Chicago, Laurel opened What the Traveler Saw, a store she owned for 20 years in Hyde Park, showcasing items from her travels. Today, Laurel Stradford works to preserve the family’s legacy.

[Photo credit: Courtesy of Laurel Stradford, Stradford historian.]