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John Wesley and Loula Tom Williams were among Greenwood’s first residents. After they met in John’s home state, Mississippi, they decided to move to Tulsa in the early 1900s.
Given that Loula was about to give birth, she wanted it to happen in a Black-serving hospital. Therefore, they traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Loula gave birth to their son, William Danforth Williams, on March 15, 1905.
Rise of Entrepreneurship in Tulsa
Historically, Jim Crow segregation divided Tulsa, creating an opportunity for Black entrepreneurs. Since Black Tulsans were unwelcome at Tulsan businesses, they spent their money in Greenwood, serving as a haven to purchase local products and support Black businesses.
In 1909, John worked with the Thompson Ice Cream Company but quickly resigned and established his auto repair garage, Williams’ One Stop Garage. The company served anyone, Black or white customers, from all over Tulsa.
The Williams family continued to prosper economically, becoming the first automobile owners in Greenwood. John purchased a brand new Chalmers “Thirty Pony Tonneau,” known for its 30 horsepower, inclined four-cylinder engine. The vehicle included a three-speed manual transmission and comfortable leather seats and went up to 50 miles per hour. During the 1900s, the car cost $1,600, roughly estimated at $53,000 today.
Newspapers credited John for establishing Greenwood’s most famous business, even referred to as the “Negro Rockefeller” by The Tulsa World, for his bold ideas and risks that cultivated his success. However, when Williams attempted to purchase the lot that became Dreamland, it was his and Loula’s name on the land. The Dreamland became a community fixture by the end of the decade when Loula owned it outright. Loula signed an affidavit that concluded that she solely owned the theater, while John independently owned the East End Garage.
Loula Williams Changed the Narrative of How Women were Perceived
During the 1900s, women played the supportive role to their husbands, not seen as equal to them. As women worked in domestic households, their jobs revolved around catering to their husbands and providing for their families. However, Loula had other plans, as she was not interested in remaining in John’s shadow, proving that she too could become a successful female business entrepreneur.
After working as a teacher, Loula decided it was time for a career change, where she used the money she made from teaching to open a corner store in Tulsa in 1909, which she called “The Williams Confectionery.” The confectionery became the top hangout spot for teens and young couples, with candy, popcorn, ice cream, beverages, and many more sugary treats.
With the rise in entrepreneurship, the Williams continued to improve their businesses and received support from their neighbors. After the confectionery became a hit, Loula decided to establish her movie theatre. In 1914, she opened “Williams Dream Theatre,” in which she bought the property like the confectionery under her maiden name and owned it herself. The place sold tickets for 15 cents and had a seating capacity of 750 people.
In 1914, the Tulsa Star published a booster edition profiling Oklahoma’s leading Black entrepreneurs. Loula and John each received a separate profile, as the paper referenced her as “unquestionably the foremost businesswoman of the state, among Negro women.”
When it comes to the history of Greenwood and the success of Black Wall Street, many individuals solely credit men, not realizing that female entrepreneurs, like Loula Williams, anchored the way for future establishments. Therefore, many individuals now recognize and acknowledge women’s impact in shaping the Greenwood community.
Tulsa Race Massacre Took Away From Black Prosperity
On the night of the Massacre, the Dreamland Theatre was in the middle of showing a film when customers heard about the chaos and began fleeing the scene to see what was happening. Henry Sowders, the white projectionist at the theatre, was informed to stop the movie and turn on the lights. Within minutes, hundreds of people evacuated the theatre.
Whites began attacking and damaging the beautiful Greenwood community, destroying the prosperous town that Blacks worked hard to make successful. They set fire to over 1,200 homes, several churches, and more than 200 businesses.
Despite the significant loss in revenue and damages businesses suffered, insurance companies were unwilling to provide compensation for the Massacre. Luckily, the family had income from the two-out of-town movie theaters in Okmulgee and Muskogee. Greenwood business owners, like the Williams, never fully recovered from their losses; however, they were able to rebuild the Williams Building in 1922.
Williams Family Legacy Lives On
In 1922, the Williams Dreamland Theatre was rebuilt. But unfortunately, the Tulsa Race Massacre affected many Black entrepreneurs, such as the Williams, as they could never get back to the level of prosperity before the Massacre.
In September 1927, Loula passed away, and John died in January 1940.
William, their son, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1922. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business from Hampton Institute in Virginia and met his wife, Mary S. Robinson.
They returned to Tulsa in 1928, where he taught for 42 years at his former high school, then retired in 1960. Together, the couple had two children: Anita and David.
Like father like daughter, Anita graduated from Booker T. Washington and then Hampton Institute in Virginia, where she became the first African-American woman in America to graduate with a doctorate in optometry. For more than 50 years, Anita went on to practice her work in Tulsa before passing away in January of 2019.
In 2011, Anita and David teamed up with the Smithsonian museum to pay tributes to their grandparents, sharing an extensive collection of artifacts and photographs.
Despite the Massacre that attempted to belittle the spirits of Black people, it did not destroy the Greenwood community, especially not John and Loula Williams. The resilience and prosperity the couple endured during and after the Massacre will forever be treasured, as they are amongst the most significant founders of Black Wall Street.