At the turn of the 20th century, the thriving neighborhood of Greenwood, known as Black Wall Street, in Tulsa, Okla., was an epicenter of black wealth in the United States. From 1905 to 1921, it was a flourishing community filled with black families who owned businesses, homes, newspapers and churches.
It was also the site of the Black Wall Street Massacre where a white mob burned, bombed and destroyed the entire neighborhood after a white woman alleged that a black man sexually assaulted her. The murderous spree killed between 100 and 300 residents, made 8,000 homeless, and left an indelible mark on the city of Tulsa for generations.
Nearly 100 years later, as the city is reconciling its racist past through renaming and reconstruction (or perhaps gentrification), black artists are coming together to claim space, tell untold stories, and revive Tulsa’s legacy of black excellence.
“Remembering Black Wall Street, you’re stuck in this space of wanting to celebrate how far we can go as it represents a symbol of success and prosperity, but also intense pain for how quickly hate and racism can destroy and take everything away,” explains Beth Henley, founder of Tulsa’s Black Moon Arts Collective.
Henley, who was born and raised in Tulsa, started the group earlier this year uniting artists of color to diversify the city’s arts scene. She affirmed her goal to amplify their voices by “breaking standards, pushing innovation, and cultivating creativity among the local community.”
Henley’s current work focuses on exploring themes of diversity in representation, strength, Afro-futurism, and femininity so she appropriately chose the name “Black Moon” because black moons (new moons) symbolize new beginnings and rebirth.
There are currently eight members in Black Moon, which includes mixed-media artists, muralists, fashion designers, painters, and other interdisciplinary artists. Member Alexander Tamahn, a mixed-media artist, asserts that Henley rallied and built a new table as opposed to pandering to the powers that be for “a seat at the table.”
Tulsa itself is undergoing its own rebirth, becoming more progressive (i.e., a purple dot in a very red state) and is actively trying to attract more artists and entrepreneurs. As the city attempts to reconcile with its racist past, the city has renamed streets that honored W. Tate Brady, the alleged founder of the city, who was a Klansman and instigator of the 1921 massacre. Brady Street, a major road that runs through downtown, has now been named “Reconciliation Way.” But even as names change, artists are pushing the city to acknowledge the inequities that remain for communities of color throughout Tulsa, especially for black and indigenous folks.
“I hope that the same efforts that are being made to bring changemakers to Tulsa will also be used to support changemakers who are currently living in Tulsa,” shared Erica Martez, a Black Moon member who is a fashion designer and fabric artist.
Currently, Tulsa remains quite segregated with the majority of black people living on the north side, while white communities exist mostly in midtown and on the south side where most of the quality businesses also exist. North Tulsa is also where Terence Crutcher, a well-loved and respected member of the black community, was killed by a police officer in September 2016.
In contrast, the historic Greenwood District and neighboring downtown are bubbling with new business and apartment buildings. As with other cities around the country, these are the beginning signs of gentrification which often exacerbates inequality.
Greenwood Avenue is the through line of what was formerly Black Wall Street, and today you’ll see various restaurants, shops, apartment buildings, as well as the Black Wall Street Gallery. Dr. Ricco Wright, a Tulsa native who recently returned home after earning his Ph.D. in philosophy at New York’s Columbia University, opened the art gallery to create a platform and grant access to Black Moon and other local artists.
“I wanted to put the arts back in the Greenwood District. In New York City, I noticed that there was a high caliber of talent with access to a plethora of great platforms,” Wright shared. “When I returned to Tulsa, I noticed that there was a similar caliber of talent but not the same level of platforms. I envisioned that Black Wall Street Gallery could be such a platform enabling local artists, especially black artists, to have more access granted to showcase their gifts and talents.”
Wright notes that the original Black Wall Street was successful not just because of black patronage, but also white supporters and other people of color who came from other parts of town. Segregation kept black people out of white businesses, but white folks were coming to the Greenwood District. Wright sees that legacy as a model for successful black businesses today.
The gallery’s current exhibition, “The Conciliation Series,” features two local women artists, one black and one white, seeking to foster more positive relations between communities. Wright explains that “conciliation” suggests mediating between parties at odds with one another and allows space for acknowledgment, apology, and reparation. “I strongly believe that through conciliation we can start the healing process and eventually become a progressive city.”
“And the arts,” he continues, “is a great path to that end. My work, which at this point is all about bringing people together through art, addresses this issue because it creates a space for all voices, especially voices of color, to be heard and represented.”
While Wright has claimed physical space on a corner of Greenwood Avenue across the street from a Subway sandwich shop, Tamahn has been having challenging conversations about police violence via murals at the nearby Living Arts Gallery. As part of a Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration shortly after Terence Crutcher’s killing, Tamahn dedicated a mural stating “Black Lives Matter,” listing Crutcher’s name along with Eric Harris, who had also been shot and killed by police.
The community responded positively to it, but the architectural firm whose building displayed the art became uncomfortable with the mural. Wanting to save face after pressure from the other Dia de Los Muertos participants, the firm kept the art up. But on the day the mural contract ended, they contacted Tamahn to say another artist would be painting over it. Before he could leave work that afternoon, it was gone. To rectify the situation, Tamahn now has a permanent Black Lives Matter mural next door on the Living Arts building, a local arts incubator and community building space. He also has consistently participated in Dia de Los Muertos, a sign of black and brown artists solidarity in Tulsa.
“There has existed for some time an almost palpable racial, cultural tension here,” Tamahn explains. “As an artist, I elect to sit with all that is discomforting and disconcerting about this and empower audiences to do the same through my work. As awkward as those necessary conversations may at times be, we must navigate them as best we can to begin developing real solutions.”
As Tulsa continues to grapple internally with how to address the past to create healing in the present, the history of Black Wall Street and the massacre continues to be framed in mainstream media outlets and books as a “race riot” as opposed to an act of domestic terrorism. In a recent New York Times interview, the last remaining survivor (who just passed away in November 2018) recounted the trauma of white men busting into her family’s home, stealing valuables and destroying furniture with hatchets and gasoline. The same article uses the term “race riot,” which many black Tulsans resent, but it also inspires local artists to tell a more nuanced story.
“The Massacre of 1921 is still called ‘the race riot’ by the media and other non-Blacks in Tulsa which is a deliberate slap in the face to the ancestors and the black community,” said Martez. “The hidden past of this city inspires me to tell the truth about social issues through art.”
Martez’s provocative work was prominently on display at a party last month in the Brady Mansion, another landmark named for the aforementioned Klansman. The mansion is now owned by an African-American football player and Black Moon transformed it into a showcase of black art during Breakout, a convening of social entrepreneurs from around the country who met in Tulsa in November. A diverse multicultural crowd of locals and visitors from around the country reclaimed the space, dancing and shouting lyrics to classic hip-hop songs, while in the next room, Martez’s work, a white KKK hood with blood splattered all over it, sat on a mantle serving as a grim reminder of Tulsa’s past and the violence black people still face at the hands of police.
As the city reinvents itself, black artists remain committed to sparking authentic conversations to heal and honor the ancestors who created these blueprints for black wealth.
“I believe in the same principles that aided in the successes of the original Black Wall Street and Greenwood district, that we are stronger together,” Henley affirms. “This is the same mindset that is helping Black Moon continually propel forward as an artistic collective.”
Wright adds: “We must talk about equity and justice and what they look like in our city today. Recognizing the importance of rebuilding Black Wall Street equates to all Tulsans supporting a fledgling Greenwood Avenue today. The history of Black Wall Street can and does inspire people from all walks of life.”
Janna A. Zinzi is a traveling storyteller documenting changemakers in arts, culture and social justice. She is also a burlesque artist annihilating stereotypes by spreading love for all shapes, shades and sexualities. You can find Zinzi dancing and documenting her travels on Instagram and Twitter.