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Oklahoma City Heritage

Black History Month is coming to a close, but in our community, we know that black history is relevant beyond the month of February. While we’ve heard of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcom X its important to tell the story of our local unsung heroes. Oklahoma has always had a strong African American presence and our people have contributed heavily to the history of this state. Among Oklahoma City’s most prominent entrepreneurs and real estate developers was Walter J. Edwards and his wife Frances.

Walter moved to Oklahoma City in 1915 by way of Mississippi with only a fourth-grade education. He found work as a laborer in a junkyard. Within fifteen years, Edwards owned a baggage-hauling company, a carpet business, an iron foundry and two drive-in gas stations. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 Edwards lost everything, but his entrepreneurial spirit kept him moving forward. In 1930 he married Frances Gilliam Waldrop and together they rebuilt.

“They couldn’t have achieved anywhere near what they did without each other, one couldn’t have done it without the other,” said James Johnson, grandson of Edward and Frances and Regional Director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. “He couldn’t have done it without her, and she couldn’t have done it without him. They complimented each other very well and it wasn’t the man behind the woman or the woman behind the man. They were side by side in their business, civic and charitable endeavors.”

Edwards soon purchased his own junkyard, Edwards Scrap Iron and Junk Yard, later called American Iron and Metal. He sold scrap iron to the U.S. Government during World War II. With those earnings, in 1937 Edwards Real Estate Investment Company began with the purchase of thirty-three acres of land on the northeast side of Oklahoma City.

“The original track of land was purchased from a gentleman by the name of C.T. Hassman and this was some property that Mr. Hassman, who was Caucasian, that he owned for a period of time,” said Johnson. “It was envisioned that if my grandparents made the purchase and subsequently applied to the city council for a subdivision permit that they would be denied and so they made arrangements with Mr. Hassman to submit the plan to the city council and have it approved and that was their way of moving around what might have been an objection to the building of these homes.”

Walter and Frances were the first African Americans to secure a loan with the Federal Housing Authority. They would go on to build over 700 homes from NE 10th Street up to NE 23rd Street in a neighborhood that would go on to be called the Edwards Addition. They sold homes primarily to African American families and for the first two years the couple personally provided financing at 6% interest to prospective buyers.

To build up the community, the Edwards donated land for a public park (W.J. Edwards Park), built a shopping center and donated land and a building for Edwards Elementary. “It was an integral part of any community the fact that education needed to be present and after you continue to grow and build homes that had families, that had children and children needed to go to school,” said Johnson. “It was just a common thing that behind that needed to be a school and education.”

The Edwards believed in the power of education and knew it would be “the key to success in the future”.

The Edwards also built Edwards Memorial Hospital.

“My grandmother had become ill, she was relegated to the basement ward of a city hospital. The doctors told my grandfather “If your wife is to get well, she needs good and great care, we don’t know that we can do that here” said Johnson. “They had the means to pay for what care was needed and so my grandfather made arrangements to have my grandmother flown to the MAYO clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.” While there Frances was treated and cured and together, they made the decision that upon their return to Oklahoma they would begin construction on a hospital of their own. Edwards Memorial provided great opportunity for training for black doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians. The hospital was the largest owned and operated by African Americans in the southwest United States until its closure in 1961.

The Edwards employed hundreds of people and made it their mission to give back to the community they loved.

“I’ve always believed that adversity breeds opportunity,” said Johnson. “We just need to have our eyes open to it and see what good can come from it and don’t shy away. We’re all going to have challenges in our life, no matter what we are, who we are or where we are, and if we can be open to God’s will and understanding we will be better for it.” ..To read more, subscribe to the blackchronicle newspaper