The Victory of Greenwood: Simon Berry

Photo of Simon Berry courtesy of the Greenwood Cultural Center.

Greenwood produced many great entrepreneurs but perhaps none has left such a lasting legacy on Tulsa as Simon Berry. Social entrepreneurship is a current buzz word in the business community but this was the type of business that Berry conducted throughout his life. Berry’s businesses met the needs of the community. His bus company paved the way for the Tulsa Transit service we enjoy today. He used his fortune to develop parks that families continue to frequent. Author Hannibal Johnson wrote that Berry typified the entrepreneurial spirit of Black Wall Street. Historian Eddie Faye Gates described him as “colorful, flamboyant,” a “smooth talker,” and someone who “grabbed with gusto the golden fleece of opportunity wherever he saw it.”

Early Life

Simon Berry was born on July 6th, 1890 in Granada, Mississippi. According to Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson—A Diary, 1930-1933 by Lorenzo J. Greene, Berry moved to Tennessee, where he taught auto mechanics at West Tennessee College. It is unclear when he moved to Tulsa, but early newspaper articles and records show that he was in Tulsa as early as 1915.

It’s said that Edwin McCabe may have motivated Berry to move to Oklahoma. Between 1890 and 1897, McCabe founded the town of Langston, Oklahoma, the Langston City Herald newspaper and the Colored Agricultural and Normal University at Langston, which would later become Langston University. McCabe and a white associate, Charles Robbins, used the platform of the Langston City Herald to attract prominent Black businessmen to Oklahoma’s all-Black towns. Journalist Victor Luckerson describes in his blog, Run it Back, that, “by 1900, there were 55,000 black people in Oklahoma, the majority of them born outside the state.”

A Tulsa World article from the morning of June 19th, 1915 describes Simon Berry being charged with the shooting of City Guard Dock Pigg. The two got into a fight near Pigg’s home on Cheyenne Ave. (the reason for the altercation is unknown). Berry wrestled the gun from Pigg and shot him in the temple. Although he wrote a confession while in jail, he pleaded not guilty when the case was brought to trial. There’s no indication that Berry served time in jail for the shooting.

Later that year, Berry married Alma Pitman on December 19th, 1915, in Tulsa. The marriage announcement appeared in the Tulsa World. Their marriage certificate indicates that Reverend Charles R. Tucker officiated the marriage at Vernon AME Church.

Berry’s draft card, dated June of 1917, lists him as living at 29 N. Cheyenne Ave. with his wife and 4-year old son, Simon Berry, Jr. The 1920 Polk Directory and the 1920 Census list the family living further away from the center of downtown at 801 E. Haskell St. just off of Lansing Ave. Their 16-year old nephew Perry Campbell was living with the family and employed as one of Berry’s jitney drivers.

Early 20th Century Uber

In 1919, only white passengers were allowed to ride Tulsa’s taxi service. Berry saw this as an opportunity for Greenwood and started a “jitney” service using his own topless Model-T Ford. Jitneys were cars that were used to provide informal shuttle services. Think of using Uber without a phone. If you wanted a ride, you’d hail a passing jitney, or simply tell someone where you needed to go, and word would travel down Greenwood until a jitney driver found you and picked you up. A nickel would get you a ride as far as you wanted to go north or south along Greenwood Ave. Berry would take as many who would dare cram in or hang on.

Passengers were undoubtedly taking a risk. In June of 1917, Berry himself was arrested for reckless driving. He pled guilty and paid a fine of $10. In 1924, two jitneys crashed into one another along South Lansing Ave. near 6th St. A teacher, Julia Edith Duff, was seriously injured and sued the jitney service for $2,000. By the mid-1920s, the jitney service employed several drivers and operated routes along Greenwood Ave. and Lansing Ave.

There are no factual accounts of Berry’s whereabouts or activity during the 1921 Massacre. One myth is that he attempted to chase off the planes which were dropping explosives onto Greenwood on the morning of June 1st. While an aerial dogfight over Greenwood is a great story, there are no records or first-person accounts to substantiate it. Allen Matthew White, four years old when his family fled the violence, credits Berry’s jitney cars for their escape. White explains that the cars would drive families to safety and then go back to pick up more people and drive them a safe distance away from the fires in Greenwood.

Auto Mechanic Garage

With the money Berry was earning from his jitney venture, he built a mechanic garage on Archer Street. There, he returned to the early days of his career, training Black mechanics. Many of Berry’s students would earn a trade that set them up to provide a good living for their families. Interviewed for Eddie Faye Gates’ book, Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street, Veneice Dunn Sims recalls that her father, Arthur Fritz Dunn, was known as “one of the best mechanics in Tulsa, black or white… Papa could fix any car or bus!” Later, he moved this operation and established Berry Garage & Service Station at 802 N. Kenosha Ave.

Bus Company

Not satisfied with just running a garage and jitney service, Berry began to invest in buying buses. Thirty-two of his mechanics became the first bus drivers. With those buses, he was better able to serve Black men and women who worked downtown or in South Tulsa with a better commute.

An April 1978 article in the public transit history journal The Fare Box describes that the City of Tulsa approved Berry Bus Lines to operate a franchise on October 17th, 1928. The new bus line received a shipment of 10,000 tokens from Meyer & Wenthe in 1929. Berry Lines operated routes along Lansing and Greenwood Avenues (riding a bus must have been a great upgrade from a topless Model-T stuffed with passengers).

According to A Century of African-American Experience Greenwood: Ruins, Resilience and Renaissance, the company was sold to Union Transportation Company with the provision that the same Black drivers and maintenance workers he had hired would keep their jobs and that Black passengers would still be allowed to ride the bus. One of Berry’s bus service riders was none other than Harlem Globetrotter and Sand Springs native Marques Haynes, who recalls riding the bus line all the way from Sand Springs to the Greenwood neighborhood in his teens. Union Transportation Company was taken over by Chicago-based Tulsa City Lines, Inc. in February 1936. Tulsa City Lines held the bus franchise from 1937-1957. The City of Tulsa itself would not take over the operation of the bus system until 1968.

Private Plane Charter

Berry enjoyed driving, working on his cars, and teaching others his mechanic skills, but his real passion was flying. In a time when the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, six Black families owned private planes. Of these, Berry and his business partner James Lee Northington were the first, earning their pilot’s licenses and buying an open-cockpit biplane in 1925. The two launched an air charter service, providing flights to both Blacks and whites. The service would carry cargo, or serve oil barons, who would visit their leases in surrounding counties.

Between Berry’s jitneys, buses, the air charter service, the auto garage, and the mechanic school, he employed more Black people than any other entrepreneur in Tulsa. Collectively, Berry’s entrepreneurial empire earned him approximately $500 per day, the equivalent of about $6,750 in today’s dollars.

Park and Swimming Pool

Around the time that Berry was establishing his air charter, he purchased 13 acres of land named the “Henry Addition” between Apache and Pine Streets along Madison Ave. to build a park, a pool, a rose garden and picnic grounds. On Sundays, Berry and Northington would offer park visitors plane rides. The project took several years and a considerable amount of money. When it was completed, Berry gifted the recreation area to the City of Tulsa.

Writing for the October 1925 issue of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, the official newsletter of the National Urban League, Albon L. Holsey described Greenwood’s resurgence after the Massacre, including details about newly built hotels, retail shops and a refreshing fruit juice stand. The purpose of the article was to convince Urban League members across the nation that while Greenwood suffered during the Massacre, it was vibrant and thriving again and a good place for Black businessmen to invest. Halsey wrote that Berry & Northington’s airplane charter service was thriving and that Berry invested $35,000 in building a new park and swimming pool.

To complete the project, the Berry’s needed to make a deal with the Brady family. In June of 1927, Simon and Alma Berry paid $3,000 to purchase five lots from Tate Brady, who owned the entire Henry Addition along with his daughter Bessie L. Adkins. Brady and his daughter would then each sign a quit claim deed so that the Hery Addition land could be turned over to the Berry’s. Two years later, the Berrys gifted the developed parkland to the City of Tulsa. At a meeting of the Park Board in August of 1929, Lincoln Playground was renamed Greenwood Playground and the park site donated to the city was designated Lincoln Park.

The city continued to improve the park and operate the swimming pool and a softball program. A bathhouse was added in 1947 and a recreational building in 1954. The building was expanded in 1962 to add a room to teach ceramics, two game rooms and a social club area/ballroom. An article in the Oklahoma Eagle from 1970 describes the park as a lively community gathering place that  hosted meeting space for Boy Scouts troops, a youth program called Teen Town (with games and dances every Friday night) and regular picnics, parties, and dances.

The park was renamed in 1992 after the Booker T. Washington High School coach Edward J. Lacy. According to the City of Tulsa Parks Department Director Anna America, the city intended to name the park after Berry to honor the man who granted the land to the city. However, by that time there was already a Berry Park near 56th St. North and Lewis Ave., so an alternate name was chosen.

Mysterious Disappearance

After such a prominent public life, Berry seems to have simply disappeared after the late 1920s. There is no obituary or indication of where he was buried. The only mention of his death comes from Harriett Cotharn, interviewed in They Came Searching by Eddie Faye Gates, who describes, “It was whispered that his body was found, without a mark, next to his car in the southern state to which he’d gone to visit other relatives,” but she gives no indication of what year this might have been or where he’d traveled to.

A clue shows up in court documents filed by his son, Simon Berry, Jr., and his wife, Alma Berry, beginning in May of 1941. Simon Berry, Jr. filed a petition to declare S.E. Dunn as his guardian. Alma waived her right to guardianship. Dunn was then granted permission by the court to sell Berry Jr.’s property (some furniture and kitchen items), which he did in July 1942. The next month, Alma demanded that Berry Jr. be placed back in her custody and that Dunn return Berry Jr. to Tulsa from San Francisco. The case dragged on for almost six years, ultimately ending in Dunn having to pay Alma $266 for the furniture that had been sold. One can only speculate that the property in question was an inheritance left to the son by the father. If so, it puts the elder Berry’s death sometime around the spring of 1941.

Neither Alma Berry nor her son appear in any public records in Tulsa after 1947. It is not known if they stayed in Tulsa or when either one of them died. As mysteriously as they arrived in Tulsa, the Berry family disappeared without a trace after leaving one of the most lasting and impactful legacies for Tulsa of any Greenwood family.

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