Legacy Unveiled: The rags to riches story of the “Millionaire Junkman”

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OKLAHOMA CITY  - Oklahoma City is home to many historical neighborhoods, including Mesta Park, Putnam Heights and the Edwards Addition.

While many people may recognize the style of homes in Mesta Park and Putnam Heights, the Edwards Addition is rich in history.

“My grandfather was referred to the junkman and certainly it’s a true testament and tribute where he made a lot of money in the junkyard and scrape iron business,” said James Johnson, the grandson of Walter Edwards and Francis Edwards.

Walter Edwards and his family moved to Oklahoma in 1907. At just 19-years-old, he got a job at a junkyard earning $9 a week.

Despite that low pay, he saved up enough to start his own businesses.

“Many businesses rise and fall, succeed and fail. My grandfather went broke during the depression. As a result, he had the resiliency and perseverance to continue through,” Johnson said.

Edwards returned to the junkyard to work his way out of debt. In fact, he ended up earning enough money to purchase a business.

“He wanted something better for himself and others that were around him. Then came the war and the hot commodity prices for iron and steel and other precious metals,” he said.

Family members say his wife was just what he needed to keep his business ventures growing.

“They say behind every great man is a great woman…that is true, that is true,” Johnson said. “He was a team and his other team member was his wife, Francis Edwards. Their skills, background, interest complimented each other so well. That she was able to do things he couldn’t and he the things she couldn’t."

That match brought about their next business venture- the Edwards Addition. It's a neighborhood that now stretches from N.E. 10th St. to N.E. 23rd.

The housing addition was created to combat a critical housing shortage for African Americans in Oklahoma City.

The couple purchased the land from C.T. Hassmen, who agreed to submit the plans to the city council for them.

The Edwards were the first African Americans to secure a Federal Housing Administration loan, which allowed them to set up sewage and water for the neighborhood.

They ended up building more than 700 single family homes in the area.

“The population of folks who bought homes in Edwards Addition were teachers, educators, doctors….let’s say middle class citizens who wanted the best for their kids," Johnson said.

In 1945, everything changed.

“My grandmother became sick and became hospitalized in the basement ward of a hospital in OKC. The doctor told my grandfather that if my grandmother was going to get well-- she needs to go to one that will give her first rate care," he said.

The couple had the means to pay for the care, but state laws prevented hospitals from treating any persons of color to the extent that Francis Edwards needed.

“[My grandfather] decided to take my grandmother to the MAYO Clinic in Minnesota. She was admitted, she was treated and got well. While she was there, they decided and committed together that upon their return--they would build a hospital for all people. Not only for African Americans, but for anybody that needed or desired services," he said.

In 1948, they build the Edwards Memorial Hospital on N.E. 16th and I-35.

The hospital was revered as being the largest hospital owned and operated by blacks in the southwest United States. They even received a congratulatory note from President Harry Truman.

“The hospital was in existence from 1948 to 1961 when it closed. By that time, services had been available at other hospital and establishments," he said.

Their rags to riches story became talk of the nation, earning Walter the nickname of "Millionaire Junkman."

“As I have grown up and gotten older, I to myself marvel at what my grandparents have down out here without the kind of trappings and resource and availability services we have today. They were hard scrabbled people. It's just phenomenal to what they were able to do with so little," he said.