They called it the Eden of the West. When boosters crafted tales of the land known as the Creek Nation, Indian Territory, and eventually Oklahoma, they wrote of fertile soil that could grow any crop, yielding shoulder-high acres of wheat and melons ready to burst in their succulent ripeness. They described a righteous realm where any newcomer would have “equal chances with the white man,” while those who remained in the old world, the Deep South, were “slaves liable to be killed at any time. Most important to J.H. and Carlie Goodwin, they spoke of good schools for colored children, places where the seeds of prosperity could be sown in the one terrain that could not be burned, stolen, or erased by an interloper—the terrain of the mind.
James and Carlie did not decide to move to Oklahoma spontaneously, for spontaneity was not a luxury that Black people could afford. James was a quiet, deliberate man who sought success with a patient vigor. In the early 1910s, he and his wife lived on a segregated street in a small town in Mississippi called Water Valley, along with their four children: Lucille, James Jr., Anna, and the baby, Edward. They knew their offspring deserved better than what little had been possible for them in the hardscrabble aftermath of Reconstruction. In Water Valley, Black children were offered no schooling beyond the eighth grade, and a Black man was expected to scurry into the gutter when he encountered a white man on the sidewalk. “He did not want to be in a place where the safety of a Black man could be so lightly treated,” J.H.’s grandson Jim explained decades later. “He didn’t want his kids exposed to that.”
Oklahoma offered something different. Here was a place where three-quarters of Black farmers owned their acreage and more than 80 percent of Black people could read—a higher literacy rate than any state in the South. Between 1900 and 1920, Oklahoma’s Black population tripled as people trekked to the state however they could, on crowded trains or weary covered wagons. A few even came on foot. Keep coming, implored one former Mississippi journalist who had made the journey. “Now is the time for the progressive negro to come west to seek a home. . . . It is superior to any other section of the United States.”
In the fall of 1913, J.H. ventured to Tulsa on a scouting mission. He knew that the place was known as Magic City, the Many Millionaire City, even the Oil Capital of the World, but he needed to see for himself whether this was a suitable town for a Black man to open a business and provide a quality education for his children. Standing on the train platform of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, J.H. could gaze up and see the epicenter of the city’s wealth just three blocks south. The Hotel Tulsa, twelve stories tall and half a block wide, was the largest new downtown skyscraper, the place where oil barons brokered all their million-dollar leases. Lounging in the decadent hotel lobby, these men pored over table-size maps that lent cold authority to their contractual conquests. If this city was indeed magic, those men believed they had the monopoly on it.
But J.H. turned his back to the hotel and walked north, across the Frisco railroad tracks, toward a small but growing Black neighborhood called Greenwood. That was where he would have to build his future.
When J.H. first stepped onto Greenwood Avenue, it wasn’t much to look at. The street was unpaved, with uneven sidewalks that were set below the street in places. On a dry, sunny day, the road might be clouded by a haze of dirt; on a rainy one, it became a muddy impasse so waterlogged that one observer called it “a splendid opportunity for some mariner to put in a ferry.” Underground, there were no pipes to provide most residents with clean water in their homes; up above, there were no streetlights to offer comfort and safety outside them.
But J.H. recognized that a spirit was germinating on this street that went beyond its humble appearance. He saw a two-story brick building anchored by The People’s Grocery Store, which had been the very first business opened on the block back in 1905 by O.W. and Emma Gurley. Just steps away from the People’s Grocery was the three-story Williams Building, where Loula Williams sold fruits and fountain drinks in her popular confectionery. A few doors north, brothers Jim and William Cherry owned a pool hall, where men went to drink, shoot dice, and tell lies. A new croquet garden on Archer Street offered “first class” recreation, while homegrown chefs sold plates of chitterlings and pigs’ feet out of make-do restaurants down the block. The owner of the Crystal Café blared his wailing electric piano around the clock—even on Sundays—as the violin teacher at the Tulsa Colored School of Music pleaded with his neighbors to “learn real music and not be carried away in that idle ragtime.” On side streets, women did hair in their kitchens and men bankrolled gambling dens outside the eyes of the law. All of it was run by a population of roughly five thousand Black people, a community of kin on a scale J.H. never witnessed in tiny Water Valley. The sidewalks were not filled with white men who demanded Black people simper in their presence; they were filled with Black men, women, and children, shuffling in and out of all those storefronts, all the time, walking tall and proud.
J.H. liked what he saw. He decided to buy a house on a hill on Elgin Avenue, only a short walk from the bustle of the business district. He sent a telegram home to Water Valley instructing his wife to pack their things because he had found the family a new home. Carlie and the four children soon piled into a train in Water Valley on their own sojourn to Tulsa. Carlie brought blankets for him to snuggle under during the long ride, along with fried chicken and ham sandwiches tucked into old shoeboxes. As their train approached its final destination, the porter, a towering Black man, bellowed out each locale. For the Goodwins’ youngest child, Edward, his world grew with every stop.
“Jonesboro, Arkansas! Jonesboro, Arkansas!”
“Monett! Monett! Monett!”
“Afton! Afton! Afton, Oklahoma!”
And finally: “Tulsey, Tulsey, Tulsey Town! Tulsey Town, the TushHog town!”
When the family arrived J.H. was waiting for them just off the train platform with a horsedrawn cab and a heart full of ambition. But moving to Greenwood, of course, was much more than just a business venture for him and Carlie. The Goodwins had sold off all their property and trekked to an unknown land for the sake of their children. Edward, the baby of the family at eleven years old, would get to spend the most time in Tulsa’s superior schools. He, more than any other Goodwin, would know what it was to live in a place where every Black person seemed to be striving for something greater. It would spark a drive in him that was never extinguished. “There was this outstanding and remarkable showing of energy,” he reflected, decades later, on those early years of Greenwood. “They were creating their own way of life for themselves.
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