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Tue, 09.10.1861

J. B. Stradford, Businessman born

J.B. Stradford

*J.B. Stradford was born on this date in 1861.  He was a Black businessman and community activist. 

John the Baptist (J.B.) Stradford was from Versailles, KY, the son of Julius Caesar (J.C.).  His father was enslaved, and his owner never gave him the last name, though 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 and worked to earn enough money to return to Kentucky so that he could secure the legal documents to declare his family free. J.C. ensured he passed on the lessons he learned to his family.  His firstborn, J.B. Stradford, took these lessons to heart, educated himself, and became an advocate for himself and others.  

He enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio. There, he met the woman who would become his wife, Augusta. The couple was the first Black students to be admitted to and graduate from the school.  Stradford acquired 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.  Upon his arrival in Greenwood, Stradford 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; his home was worth $125,000, the Stradford Hotel at $50,000, and another 2-story brick residence on N. Elgin Ave. at $3,000. However, his empire had 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 21st-century dollars). When the hotel opened on June 1st, 1918, it was America's largest Black-owned and operated hotel. 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.”  

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. Stradford led a protest two days later 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. 

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.  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 lynching 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.” 

Dick Rowland, a young black man, was arrested on the morning of May 31st, 1921.  The news began circulating in the Greenwood community; Stradford had no confidence that the police would do anything to protect the 19-year-old from being lynched. Dedicated to stopping the lynching, Stradford gathered a meeting at the Tulsa Star’s offices that evening, repeating his oft-used statement about “blood in the streets.”  His comments encouraged others to continue going to the courthouse throughout the night. When the armed white mob moved from the courthouse and began attacking Greenwood, Stradford tried to his hotel.  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 others at the hotel, telling them that the building would not be further damaged if they surrendered and agreed to be taken to Convention Hall. They subsequently agreed though 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.  He 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 and his son Cornelius Francis (C.F.) Stradford headed for Chicago, ignoring the police’s demands. Once there, he was able to fight extradition to Tulsa successfully.  Desiring to recreate his businesses, he did construct a candy store, a barbershop, and a small pool hall.  

He lost more than money in the Tulsa Race Massacre. He lost the sense of his place in society and struggled with the injustice done to him and the neighborhood.  J.B. Stradford passed away in Chicago on December 22nd, 1935.  Almost 70 years after the Massacre, family members fought to clear Stradford’s name.  This includes his granddaughter Jewel Stradford.  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.  Today, his great-granddaughter Laurel Stradford works to preserve the family’s legacy. 

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