Tulsa 100: The Art of Looking Back to Move Forward

by D. Amari Jackson

Black Wall Street. For many African Americans, the name evokes a nostalgic, near-magical period in history, a time where Black people thrived, self-contained in their own communities and mostly unencumbered by the hostile white communities surrounding them, ever-threatening, but somehow kept at bay. Black Wall Street was larger than any one community given the moniker has been applied to several successful African American communities about the nation in the first half of the 20th century including the Hayti Community in Durham, North Carolina; the Fourth Avenue District in Birmingham, Alabama; Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia; and the city of  Boley, Oklahoma.

That acknowledged, a mere hour from Boley, lies the city with the community most associated with this fruitful moniker, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the end of the month, between May 31 and June 1, the city commemorates the 100th anniversary of the heinous race massacre that destroyed the Greenwood District, at the time one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States. The sizable schedule of events includes panels, lectures,   festivals, commemorative services, concerts, dedications, and additional activities involving arts and cultural organizations, government, businesses, and celebrities, both local and national. “This has galvanized our city,” reported Phil Armstrong, project manager for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, to the Oklahoman.  “It has coalesced the private sector, the nonprofit foundations, the community.”

Today, in the very heart of this community, stands the Black Wall Street Gallery, the artistic and symbolic reminder of the storied community that was, and how art can inspire a more humane and viable city going forward.    

For such is the value of art. “Art is a universal language, it is open to all,” proclaims Dr. Ricco Wright, owner of Black Wall Street Gallery and a fourth-generation Tulsan who was schooled in group economics by a great grandfather that lived through the height of Black Wall Street. “It is also subjective, so there’s no right or wrong. Everybody can create art.” 

As a collector consumed with building generational wealth through art, Wright founded the Tulsa gallery in September 2018 after initially hosting a series of popular art events he labeled the “Black Wall Street Soiree” at his home. “Nobody was doing anything with respect to art in Greenwood,” says Wright, noting “there were no Black-owned galleries in the state of Oklahoma at the time.” Upon opening, Wright launched “The Conciliation Series,” pairing Black and white artists of various media each month for a year. The popular series brought thousands of people to Greenwood who’d never been there before, prompting increased networking between people of different races along with increased sales of Black art to white buyers. “I didn’t like all the talk about reconciliation,” stresses Wright. “Reconciliation means restoring friendly relations, which presupposes that they were established to begin with. You can’t tell me the slave and the slave owner were friendly. You can’t tell me that a massacre was friendly. You can’t tell me that redlining and gentrification are friendly.” 

Devin Allen, Untitled, 2020, 24 x 36 in, @bydvnlln, (via BWS Gallery Instagram)

Consistently, the rich and tragic legacy of Black Wall Street, and the art it spawned, has implications far beyond Tulsa as the story reflects the checkered racial and economic dynamics of a nation still struggling to correct itself, to come to grips with its violent heritage. Recently, Wright significantly expanded this legacy by opening a Black Wall Street Gallery in New York City in the fall of 2020.  On May 27th, the gallery will honor the 100th anniversary by presenting “21 Piece Salute,” an exhibition featuring 21 Black artists from around the world and a “salute to the ancestors who lost their lives during the massacre,” explains Wright. “It’s also a way for us to tell the world that we believe Black art is the future, and that we will build generational wealth through art.”

But such a healthy and viable future first comes, particularly in Tulsa, with an honest acknowledgement of the past. Unfortunately, there are those who still practice the art of minimizing the extent of the massacre a century ago; those who support legislation to the same effect; and those who still unknowingly or uncaringly refer to the horrific event as a series of “race riots.” The “Tulsa Race Riots” of 1921 remains a common misnomer; it was clearly not a riot, but a massacre by a bloodthirsty white mob set on destroying the independent, affluent Black mecca that bordered their less viable communities. It is regarded as one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history. 

Initially dubbed “Negro Wall Street” by prominent educator Booker T. Washington, commercial enterprises thrived along Tulsa’s Greenwood Avenue in the early 20th century as the epicenter of one of the wealthiest African American communities in the country. Anchored by oil-rich land, thousands of able, economically-minded Black residents and families engaged each other daily in commerce, farming, construction, networking, social activities, and community planning and development. Over a 12-hour period between May 31 and June 1, 1921, local white mobs, enabled and aided by local white officials, rampaged and murdered Black men, women, and children with an arsenal including guns, knives, clubs, and circling airplanes carrying bombs and machine guns. Ostensibly triggered by the alleged assault of a white elevator operator by a Black man, the prosperous Greenwood District was looted and burned to the ground leaving close to 8000 people homeless and causing others to flee their city and never return. Over 35 blocks and 1200 homes were destroyed, martial law declared, and thousands of Black residents imprisoned. The estimated death toll has since ranged from 80 to 400 residents; eyewitness accounts state that hundreds were buried in mass graves. 

One such account—published after being recovered in 2015 and subsequently donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—was penned by Oklahoma attorney Buck Colbert Franklin, the father of prominent African American historian, John Hope Franklin. 

“I could see planes circling in mid-air,” wrote Franklin. “They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top…” 

“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls,” reported Franklin.  “I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top… I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape… Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations… Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?” 

No white person was ever convicted of a single crime for the massacre. Nonetheless, incredibly, the Greenwood community was quickly rebuilt by its surviving residents and, though it never enjoyed the economic prosperity it once had, it thrived for three decades before declining in the face of an aging community, lost generational wealth, and the changing economic and social dynamics of the mid-20th century. 

Since 2001, despite the Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s production of a report detailing the damage from the massacre, all attempts at securing reparations for its survivors have failed. Few American history textbooks mention the massacre. Most Americans know little to nothing about it.

The national attention being directed toward the 100th anniversary should change some of that. And, appropriately, art will continue to play a central role in this quest for conciliation and recovery, this Sankofan process of looking back to move forward. 

“The special thing about being Black is that we curate culture through art,” says Wright, noting “we’ve been doing this since the beginning of time. You can go all the way back to ancient Egypt. Those pyramids are art. They call it architecture.” 

“We use art as a vehicle to build community,” insists Wright, tapping into such Black Wall Street Gallery themes as commemoration, truth, healing, conciliation, progress, wealth, and, ultimately, human expression. “Who doesn’t enjoy some aspect of art, whether it’s painting, photography, music, dance, all of it is some form of expression,” he offers. “And, as humans, we desire to express ourselves. So when you think about what’s at the core of humanity, the answer is art.”

Wright is crystal clear that if any community seeks to thrive or regenerate itself in a viable way, as his native Tulsa strives to do, the answer is the same. 

“There’s never been any civilization that prospered without art,” promotes Wright. “Because the artists are the ones who speak the truth. Whether you’re talking poets, painters, writers, or otherwise, these are all artists. It’s not the politicians. It’s not the philanthropist. It’s not the economists,” clarifies Wright. 

“It’s the artists.”

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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.

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