This story is written by J.D. Baker, Kayte Spillman, and Greg Horton.
Out from the Gloomy Past: The Rise and Legacy of Oklahoma City’s Black Entrepreneurship.
J.D. Baker, a platform manager at Cortado Ventures, writes about the history of Black-owned businesses starting with the legendary Deep Deuce business district followed by urban renewal and the renaissance now under way in Northeast OKC.
“The price we pay to exist in the state of Oklahoma is too great,” wrote one of Oklahoma’s most notable Black businessmen Roscoe Dunjee, editor of The Black Dispatch.
As editor of the Oklahoma City-based The Black Dispatch, Dunjee used his newspaper as the leading voice for Black Oklahomans and civil rights in this state beginning in 1912. For 40 years, Dunjee wrote provocative, truth-telling stories to inform Black readership and represent their voice. In many ways, he also used his money to support other Black civic and business ventures to advance equal rights.
Dunjee served as president of the National Negro Business League, a member of the NAACP national board. He also took keen interest in supporting youth organizations including the YMCA, 4-H clubs and the Elks. A progressive of his time, from his printing press in Deep Deuce, he inspired and found admiration from a generation of leaders including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Oklahoma State Senator E. Melvin Porter, educator and activist Clara Luper, and publisher Russell Perry, who currently owns the largest circulated Black news publication in the state, The Black Chronicle.
Dunjee’s quote is written on the wall of the newly opened Eastside Pizza House, owned by Emmy Award-winning entrepreneur, activist and rapper Jabee Williams. On a regular day, you can drive along Northeast 23rd Street and find numerous Black businesses including the Eastpoint development, which consists of food establishments like the pizza place, a bar, bookstore, construction company, fitness center and more. While the redevelopment seeks to spur more commerce along the historical corridor, the variety and concentration of businesses is reminiscent of the early days in Oklahoma City’s history in Deep Deuce, the historic Black community which had seen much of its heyday from the 1920s until integration and urban renewal in the 1960s through 80s.
Deep Deuce, along Northeast Second Street, also known as “Deep Second,” was the home to many great Black residents of Oklahoma City, including author Ralph Ellison and musicians like Oklahoma City Blue Devils, Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian. The community was composed of Black Oklahomans who had traveled from across the United States, seeking new opportunities through the land runs and open territory. Many had heard about the call from leaders like Edward P. McCabe, who had aspired for an “All-Black” state. Even before this, Freedmen lived in Indian Territory, mostly those who were (or descendants of) formerly enslaved persons by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole tribes.
Deep Deuce was also the birthplace of many great entrepreneurs and businesses that served the community’s needs. Segregation laws and ordinances forced by state and city leaders sandwiched the generation of Black Oklahomans to living no further north than Northeast Second Street. These restrictions later expanded to Fourth, and later Eighth and so on. The confinement of living in Deep Deuce allowed for opportunities for the Black residents to start, grow and patronize each other’s businesses, churches and their homes.
The National Register of Historic Places registration for the Littlepage Building (built in 1924), which was home to several restaurants and the Littlepage Hotel, stated that the Deep Deuce community in the 1930s was also home to “seven restaurants, two drugstores, three billiard parlors, two undertakers, five barbershops, three real estate offices, cleaners, a theater [Aldridge], two taxi companies, two shoe repair shops, a shoeshine parlor, a lawyer’s office, eight physicians, five dentists, two life insurance offices, a watchmaker, two tailors, a dancehall [Slaughter], beauty parlor, two clothing stores, a grocer and a newsstand.”
Even in a quick scam of the Negro City Directory, formally published by the Oklahoma City Negro Chamber of Commerce, gives a good insight into the vast breath of Black entrepreneurship within central Oklahoma and predominantly in the central and eastern points of Oklahoma City. Some of the businesses from the 1940s still exist under the same name including McKay-Davis Funeral Home and Rolfe Funeral Home, both which were previously on Northeast Fourth Street and now, similarly, are on Northeast 36th Street. Jewel Theatre also existed on Northeast Fourth Street and, with recent efforts, has an opportunity for a revival in its original building. Although many of the Deep Deuce businesses are now closed, some of their existing structures still stand.
Today, in Deep Deuce, you’d hardly find original buildings of these historic businesses, but some still stand including Littlepage Building, which is currently home to Stag, as well as the Elks Victory Lodge-Ruby’s Grill building, designed and built by Dr. W.H. Slaughter, now is home to Flower & Flour Coffeeshop.
Today, the legacy of Black entrepreneurship from Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce and Tulsa’s Greenwood District remains strong in the state. There has been more focus on reviving and rebuilding the glory of Greenwood, which was destroyed by the 1921 massacre and later urban renewal in the 1980s. Similarly, Oklahoma City’s Black community had much of its identity stolen and destroyed through urban renewal. Community-led organizations continue to make efforts to further open opportunity, education and the advance of Black and minority entrepreneurship within central Oklahoma. City leadership, including Mayor David Holt and Councilwoman Nikki Nice, have made concerted efforts to invest money and resources in supporting entrepreneurship among minority communities. MAPS 4, the $978 million penny sales tax initiative passed by voters in 2019, includes $15 million for the creation of the Henrietta B. Foster Center (formerly the segregated YMCA) for Northeast Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship, to specifically include minority small and disadvantaged businesses. The project is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2025.
Oklahoma’s Black entrepreneurs have a solid foundation and a host of giants in which they stand on the shoulders of. Although the journey has and continues to be faced with strife, Black commerce is emerging stronger than ever. A close glance at the large trash can at the Eastpoint development, an onlooker can read, “One yet many,” inscribed in chalk on the green receptacle. For Black business owners, following in the tradition of Black commerce, each one recognizes their success is intrinsically tied to each other as a new renaissance begins.
OKC’s Black entrepreneurial pioneers
Collectively, many names of pioneer Black entrepreneurs that could be mentioned, but it was the forces of a few that have made a lasting impact that people still speak about today.
Dr. W.H. Slaughter was the first Black physician in the city. As a philanthropist, doctor and developer, he was a giant for the Deep Deuce community. The famous Slaughter’s Hall was the home to his physician’s practice and the Dance Hall that was frequented by famous jazz musicians.
Zelia Page Breaux was the first woman president of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers, and she was a well-known music educator who taught Rushing, Christian and Ralph Ellison, who considered her a second mother. Teaching at Douglass High School, her choirs and bands had a significant impact on music, influencing greats like Duke Ellington and Noble Sissle. As the co-owner of the Aldridge Theatre, she hosted many well-known jazz and blues musicians that performed and visited Deep Deuce including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Count Basie’s band.
Sidney Lyons owned rental houses and commercial property, including a block of business buildings in Deep Deuce, among other places. The brother of Ruby Lyons, Sidney is most well-known for starting his East India Toilet Goods and Manufacturing Company that was adjacent to his self-built home, now known as the Lyons-Luster Mansion, which still stands on the southeast corner of Third and Central Ave. The company sold products, including hair care products, to African Americans coast to coast. His home is currently owned by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, which is undergoing a community engagement process with Open Design Collective to envision the future for the historic property.
Walter and Frances Edwards Ever wonder where Edwards Park in Northeast OKC got its name? Walter and Frances Edwards were OKC’s most impactful Black developers. They purchased 33 acres in Northeast OKC in 1937 and sold homes in the area to local Black residents, effectively killing segregation and opening more home opportunities for their community. They also built Edwards Memorial Hospital in 1948, a three-story, 105-bed hospital completely owned and operated by Black people, a first for a Black community in the South.
Gravelly Eugene Finley Dr. Slaughter’s son-in-law, Dr. Gravelly Eugene Finley, Sr. began his medical practice in Deep Deuce in the 1930s. The Finley building stood where the Aloft Hotel stands today at the southwest corner of Walnut and Second. Dr. Finley practiced for more than six decades. The bridge that connects Deep Deuce and Bricktown was dedicated in his honor in 2005 after being redeveloped.