OSU students help professor tell the stories of the women of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre that destroyed one of America’s most affluent Black communities, the Greenwood District. While many Americans are just now learning about this hidden tragedy, much of its history and the survivors’ stories remain largely untold.
Oklahoma State University assistant professor Dr. Brandy Thomas Wells and her class are telling the stories of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, focusing on an often-overlooked perspective: the women of Black Wall Street.
Wells is an assistant professor of history whose research interests focus on the intersection of Africana and American history and gender & women studies. When the Georgia native arrived at OSU in 2018, Oklahoma was grappling with teaching the subject in public schools.
Though she came to the state already knowing the history of the massacre, she began exploring Mary E. Jones Parrish’s 1923 book, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster," one of the most popular and well-known accounts of the event.
In the fall of 2020, she decided to incorporate the massacre into her senior-level class on digital methods in history.
Elizabeth Thomas, a student in the class who was also taking an honor’s independent study with Wells, joined her on the project. When the students in the larger class were deciding the focus for their digital project, Thomas mentioned the project to her classmates, who were quick to embrace it.
“The class jumped on it,” Wells said. “And I was so grateful because it was a project that I just thought I had to do on my own. And frankly, I'm not sure that I would have been able to do it with all my other duties, but they came on board, and they did a fantastic job.”
The students researched and wrote biographies of 10 influential women of Greenwood. Those stories are now published on the blackwallstreetwomen.com website.
Some of the women profiled on the website include:
• Susie Bell, co-owner of the Bell and Little Café and the Busy Bee Café.
• Dora Wells, co-owner of the Wells Garment Factory and manager of the Wells Hair Manufacturing School, a beauty school.
• Emma Gurley, co-owner and manager of the Gurley Hotel and wife of O.W. Gurley, founder of Tulsa’s Greenwood District.
As Wells continues teaching her classes, she expects the number of biographies to expand.
“My dream is that this website on Black women in Greenwood continues to grow,” Wells said. “So, we are starting with 10 biographies, but every time I teach a digital methods course, that I teach Oklahoma history with, we’ll be doing this again. So, students who work with me will have the opportunity to write these biographies.”
The classmates used a variety of sources to research these untold lives, including digital OSU archives, census records, photo records, newspapers, books and more.
“One of the things that we note is the Tulsa Race Massacre is not just a Black Oklahoma story, this is the Oklahoma story,” Wells said. As OSU students work to keep these stories alive, they also recognize these legacies help tell a richer story of Tulsa’s Greenwood district.