While the path of today’s black investors appears lonesome, we do not walk alone. Current professionals may be singular or few in their positions and institutions, but our history recounts an anthology of forebearers. These past individuals may not have carried familiar titles or sat at recognizable tables, but from them, contemporary investors can and should draw inspiration, wisdom, and companionship. We stand on the shoulders of giants. This piece is about one of them.
The origins of John the Baptist Stradford, or JB as he was better known, reads like a revisionist history. JB was born in Versailles – not the estate of manicured gardens, chandeliered apartments, and frescoed halls, but into slavery at a plantation in Bluegrass Kentucky. His father was named Julius Caesar, but Julius, in the antebellum South, was a world away in time and distance from any Roman grandeur. At an early age, young Caesar committed a capital offense – with the help of a sympathetic white woman, he learned to read. In 1863, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Versailles, he used that ability to forge documents that granted him passage to freedom in the North – a small act of rebellious mobility in a sedentary system of oppression. Spartacus might have been a better name.
After he accumulated sufficient savings in the North, Julius returned to Versailles to emancipate his family, including JB. From Julius, John inherited a caesarian ambition. He attended Oberlin College in its inaugural graduating class of black students before law school at Indiana University. By the turn of the century, he was a prominent lawyer in Indianapolis, exceeding the wildest imaginations that could have rapped the childhood dreams of a young boy born into slavery in Versailles.
In Indianapolis, JB heard about a thriving community named Greenwood – a black mecca on the Oklahoma grasslands nearby Tulsa. He packed his bags.
In Greenwood, John the Baptist found the promised land – an emerging community of unprecedented social mobility. Greenwood’s main avenue hosted offices of dentists, attorneys, surgeons, journalists, bankers, pharmacists — many of whom, like John the Baptist, were born on Southern plantations. There were two schools, two newspapers, a hospital, a shopping district, a theatre, a bank.
JB entered the fray as an investor in the black innovation unfolding in Greenwood. His diversified portfolio included black-operated apartment buildings, pool halls, shoeshine parlors and bathhouses. But his most prized investment was a hotel at the intersection of Cameron Street and Greenwood Avenue. This 54-room inn was the largest black-owned hotel in the country.
John the Baptist was stubborn behind his convictions – beliefs that extended beyond the arena of black commerce. When Tulsa City Hall passed laws redlining the district, JB led a protest of six hundred residents. When a train conductor refused to seat him and his wife in a first-class cabin, JB sued the railroad company. When white mobs threatened to lynch a local resident, JB assembled an armed defense.
As social mobility and economic prosperity grew, so did white resentment. On that Oklahoma plain, black advancement adhered to Newton’s third law – for every action of progress, vitriol imposed an equal and opposite reaction. Greenwood earned the nickname “Black Wall Street” for its commercial boom, so white neighbors adopted the pejorative “Little Africa.” The community expanded geographically as it attracted more residents, so Tulsa City Hall imposed race-defined boundaries. Service workers started competing for professional positions, so the state legislature limited black applicants’ ability to obtain high-wage positions. That was at least until 1921, when the white reaction to black advancement exceeded the laws of such physics.
John the Baptist lost his fortune on Tuesday, May 31 of that year at 11:00 pm (or thereabouts). A white pyromaniacal mob, angered by assault accusations from a white elevator operator towards a black shoe shiner, stormed Greenwood’s central district. Stray gunshots organized into open fire. Indiscriminate looting became comprehensive. A fire grew infernal. No one knows how many died in the destruction because the authorities did not bother to keep track. But photos show 35 blocks having burned to the ground, leaving up to 10,000 residents homeless. JB’s legacy burned alongside the wooden shafts and mortar. His hotel – an Ozymandian monument to black fortune – was never recovered, nor any of his community investments.
A reporter once asked Mohandas Gandhi what he thought of western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” answered the Mahatma. The same could have been said of American capitalism. From Harlem to Greenwood to Versailles, the black entrepreneurial spirit pressed against repressive institutions, even when those barriers refused to relent. The path they forged, the same we walk today, has been razed, redlined, segregated, and mined. But it's there. We do not walk alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants – one of their names was John the Baptist Stradford.