Follow the Data Podcast: Black Wall Street – Historical Resilience in Tulsa, OK
In Part One of a two part episode, we hear from Hannibal Johnson and Rick Lowe, detailing work in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the most recent winner of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Art Challenge.
Hannibal Johnson is an author, attorney, professor and consultant. He is an expert of the African-American experience in Oklahoma and its broader historic impact on American history.
Rick Lowe is an artist, best known for Project Row Houses, which he started in Houston in 1993. He has worked with communities and exhibited all over the world.
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After listening to this podcast, learn more in a Q&A with Rick Lowe: Honoring the Past and Shaping the Future through Public Art.
We hope you enjoy this episode. Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!
KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.
The Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts program seeks to support innovative temporary public art projects that enhance the quality of life in cities. The Public Art Challenge encourages mayors to collaborate with artists to develop projects that address community issues.
This episode’s data point highlights the impact of the challenge: the inaugural Public Art Challenge generated significant activity across four regions, including catalyzing 13 million dollars for local economies, 10 million views, 245 partnerships, and 490 public programs.
The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma is the winner of the 2018 Public Art Challenge. The city will receive one million dollars for the “Greenwood Art Project, a group of temporary public artworks which celebrate and commemorate a vibrant community in the Historic Greenwood District known as Black Wall Street.
In this episode, Kate Levin, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ arts program lead introduces two key speakers intimately involved in the development of the Greenwood Art Project, Hannibal Johnson and Rick Lowe.
Johnson discusses the history of Tulsa and Black Wall Street and Lowe speaks to the development of the Greenwood Art Project.
This episode is part one of a two-part conversation – so please subscribe to Follow the Data so you don’t miss part 2! Let’s listen to the episode now.
KATE LEVIN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our conversation with some extraordinary guests about the Tulsa Public Art Challenge Project, which centers around a key episode in U.S. history that is far too little known. The Public Art Challenge is our grant program which offers up to $1 million to U.S. cities for temporary public art projects that address a significant civic issue. And the initiative really reflects Mike’s experience as mayor, during which time we did close to 500 public art projects. And while they were all different in form, in location, in type, they all had the same kind of virtuous circle of bringing together entities that don’t normally function well together and sometimes don’t function at all. Stakeholders, neighbors, city agencies, sometimes state and federal agencies, local businesses, funders all of them collaborated around these projects in uniquely beneficial ways.
So, in 2014, we launched the first Public Art Challenge and supported four projects across six cities, and we announced a second round last year. And we’re honored to be supporting five new projects over the two-year grant cycle. And, of course, my amazing colleagues, Anita Contini and Stephanie Dockery oversee those projects. Mike and Patti were in Tulsa last month to announce that winning project and were so moved by everybody they met, and the grit, and the determination, and the imagination that this project is generating.
So, we’re so pleased to have two key proponents with us today. Hannibal Johnson is an author, an attorney, a professor, and a consultant specializing in several fields including diversity and inclusion, and nonprofit leadership and management. And he has written a number of influential books that chronicle the African-American experience in Oklahoma and its uniquely impactful role in American history — and has received numerous honors and recognitions for his work.
Rick Lowe is a Houston-based artist who has worked with communities and exhibited all over the world. Some of us had the pleasure of seeing his work as part of Documenta 14 last summer in Athens, which is one of the Bloomberg Associates cities, and he has been a real inspiration for the Associates work that we are doing in Houston. He is best known for Project Row Houses, which he started in Houston in 1993, he is a MacArthur Fellow who has also served on the National Council on the Arts. So, Hannibal and Rick are each going to talk to us a little bit about their journeys, thanks so much.
HANNIBAL JOHNSON: So, my task this morning is to give you a quick overview of the history of Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District, the traditional African-American community in Tulsa known primarily for two things. One, as the hub of black entrepreneurial activity in the early part of the 20th century, and secondly, as the site of the worst of the so-called race riots that happened in America. This happened in 1921 in Tulsa. So, I’m going to talk about chapters in this larger narrative. The overarching theme of this narrative for me is the human spirit. It’s fundamentally about people who had vision, people who were determined, and people who ultimately were resilient after the utter devastation of their community.
I’m going to divide the talk into segments: roots, which talks about the original formation of the community; riot, which talks about the devastation of 1921; regeneration, which talks about the remarkable rebuilding shortly after the devastation in 1921.
Now, if we look at the roots, we have to examine how people of African descent arrived in Oklahoma in the first instance. Well, if we look at the 1830s and 1840s, many of you are probably familiar with the storied Trails of Tears, the forced migration of the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, the Seminoles and Muskogee Creek tribes out of the southeastern United States into what was then Indian Territory. But how many of you knew that the Five Tribes all engaged in the practice of chattel slavery?
So, a number of people of African descent arrived in Oklahoma with the Five Tribes, many of them were held as slaves of those tribes, and some of them were free persons living among those tribes. This is in the 1830s and 1840s. If we look at the later 1800s, there was a movement afoot in Oklahoma called boosterism. Oklahoma opened up territory for general settlement in 1889, and a number of African-Americans participated in those land runs and land lotteries in the late 1800s. Among them was a fellow named E.P. McCabe, who had come from the all-black town of Nicodemus in Kansas. He migrated to Oklahoma, founded the all-black town of Langston, where Langston University is. Langston University is the farthest west of the HBCUs. He also created a townsite company, began recruiting African-Americans to come from the deep south into Oklahoma. Oklahoma was really sold as sort of a Beulah land or a promised land for African-Americans because of general land availability and because it had not yet become a state. And the theory was that people would be able to escape the oppressive conditions that black folks faced in the deep south. So, McCabe hired agents and sent bulletins recruiting black folks to come to Oklahoma, and he was successful. He also had a dream of creating within Oklahoma an all-black state. This was a really serious notion. He actually met with the United States president Benjamin Harrison in 1890. They talked about this, legislation was introduced. Obviously, it didn’t come to fruition, but in the process, Oklahoma created more than 50 all-black towns, more than any other state in the union. So, African-Americans really saw Oklahoma as an attractive site to locate, or to relocate.
Interestingly, Oklahoma becomes a state in 1907. The first act passed by the Oklahoma legislature was a Jim Crow edict that separated railroad facilities by race. And after that, a number of other segregation measures followed. So, we have the irony of these black folks migrating to Oklahoma, thinking that they’re escaping the kind of social, political, and economic oppression that they faced in the deep south, only to have Oklahoma become a state and mirror those very same conditions. Still, there was opportunity in places like Tulsa. Why? Because in about 1905, oil was discovered in and around Tulsa.
Tulsa began to boom. Tulsa ultimately became the oil capitol of the world, so there was a lot of economic opportunity in Tulsa. Well, a fellow named O.W. Gurley, who comes to Tulsa, sets up a grocery store, creates a hotel. He buys some land, sells that land to black folks, and that’s really the beginning of the Greenwood community. It develops as an entrepreneurial community when people like Simon Berry create a jitney service, parlays that into a bus service. He creates an airline shuttle service that services some of the wealthy oil barons in Tulsa, becomes very successful. J.B. Stratford was a lawyer, owned and operated the Stratford Hotel, one of the several boutique hotel in the Greenwood community.
Dr. A.C. Jackson was a prominent surgeon, even in rigidly segregated Tulsa. He was known by the Mayo brothers, as in Mayo Clinic, as the most able Negro surgeon in America. This is in the 1910s, 1920s. A.J. Smitherman was the editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star. The Tulsa Star was a leading black newspaper. There were a couple of black newspapers at the time. So, there’s all this incredible economic and entrepreneurial activity going on in this 35 square block area that we called the Greenwood District, the Negro Wall Street. And we come to the period of May 31st and June 1st, 1921, the Tulsa race riot.
I always preface my discussion of the riot with something that Maya Angelou said that I think is profound. She said, “Our history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived but, if faced with courage, it need not be lived again.” So, the notion is that we ignore our history at our own peril. The other thing that is important to note about what happened in Tulsa in 1921 is that it happened not in a vacuum, but rather in a national historical context. This period in our history is known by historians and sociologists as the nadir of race relations in America, or the low point of race relations in America. Why? Well, because there were these incidents that were called race riots occurring throughout the United States. We know that 1919, the summer and fall of 1919, there were over 25 major civil disturbances that were called race riots in America.
They happened in places like New York; Philadelphia; New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Omaha; Longview, Texas; Elaine Arkansas, and on and on and on. The other thing that was happening during this period was lynching. Lynching for me is domestic terrorism. Lynching, which often targeted African-Americans, was a phenomenon whereby a person was often targeted for some real or perceived social slight or legal infraction, and was victimized brutally, often murdered, often in the presence of large audiences, the point being to send a message to the
group to which the person belonged about their relative worth and their value within the context of society.
So, we have these lynchings and these race riots going on all throughout the country. Tulsa is really emblematic of that. It’s different only in terms of its magnitude. So, what caused the 1921 Tulsa race riot? The systemic institutional racism that existed throughout the United States generally is a cause. Land lust. The Greenwood district, the historic African-American community in Tulsa abuts downtown separated by the Frisco tracks, literally separated by the railroad tracks. So, that land was desirable by the railroads and by a number of other corporate interests. Jealousy. African-Americans were supposed to be inferior to whites, if not subhuman, during this period. That was a prevalent thought process during this period. So, jealousy was certainly one of the causes. In Tulsa, there are a couple of somewhat unique elements. The KKK, the Klan, formed in Oklahoma in the early 1920s and really blossomed or burgeoned throughout the ’20s, peaking in the very late 1920s. So, the Klan had a presence in Tulsa early on.
The other thing that happened in Tulsa was the media helped fan the flames of racial unrest. A particular media outlet called the Tulsa Tribune, which is the daily afternoon newspaper, published a series of inflammatory articles and editorials that really got the community up in arms. So, we’re sitting on this tinderbox and we only need a match to be thrown on it. And that match was a trigger incident involving two teenagers, Dick Rowland, a black 19-year-old Tucson boy, Sarah Page, a white girl who operated an elevator in a downtown building. Dick Rowland needed to use the restroom. Facilities were segregated. He knew that there was a place in the Drexel Building where Sarah Page was working. He went to the Drexel building, boarded the elevator. Something happened, we don’t know exactly what, but the elevator kind of lurched and caused Dick Rowland to bump into Sarah Paige. She began to scream.
The elevator came back down to the lobby. Both of them exited the elevator. There was a clerk from a nearby store who came to Sarah Page’s assistance. Again, she was hysterical, and The Tribune, published the story the next day. Mind you, Sarah Page would never testify against Dick Rowland because nothing ever happened, but the Tribune published a story the next day that said that this black boy had attempted to rape this respected white girl in a public space in broad daylight in a downtown Tulsa building. That got the community up in arms. Dick Rowland was arrested, taken to the jail, which is on the top floor of the courthouse. A large white mob began to gather, threatening to lynch Dick Rowland. Black men came to the courthouse to protect Dick Rowland because they were really concerned about his safety, his very life. There was an exchange of words between the smaller black group and the larger white group.
There was a struggle over a gun that one of the black man had, the gun discharged, and things went south from there. Now, as a result of this incident, we know that somewhere between 100 and 300 people lost their lives, at least 1,250 structures, including homes and businesses, were destroyed, property damage conservatively estimated ranges from $1.5 to $2 million dollars, which in today’s money would be in excess of $20 million dollars. The Red Cross provided relief. Many black families spent days, weeks, and months living in tent cities throughout the city. Black men and, to some extent, to a lesser extent, women and children were interned, very much like people of Japanese ancestry were interned during World War II.
They’re taken to these encampments and to get out, they had to have a green card, literally a green card countersigned by a white person to get out of these encampments. This is in Tulsa in 1921. The good news is, again, about the character of these people who said essentially, we shall not be moved. So, even after this devastation, many African-Americans decided to remain and to rebuild. The city put up all manner of obstacles, including changing the fire code to make it more difficult to rebuild, and rezoning the Greenwood area.
Those measures were successfully fought by B.C. Franklin, who was the father of the eminent historian, Dr. John Hope Franklin. And the community was able to rebuild and rebound sufficient in four years to host the national conference of the National Negro Business League, which is Booker T. Washington’s black Chamber of Commerce. That meeting was held in Tulsa 1925. The peak of this community is it about 1942, when there are more than 200 black-owned and black-operated businesses back on Greenwood. So, the community came back bigger and better than ever as an entrepreneurial enclave after this remarkable devastation in 1921. So, today in Greenwood, we have kind of an amalgam of cultural, educational, residential, commercial, and entertainment interests, and it’s a community that really is struggling with its identity and with its branding. I think Rick will probably address that, to some extent. So, what happened between the peak of the community and where we are today?
A number of things happened, the most ironic of which, I think, is integration. Now, I certainly embrace integration as a positive value, but if you think about why the Greenwood community existed as a business community in the first instance, it is because of segregation. It was a community of necessity. And when integration comes along and people are able to spend money outside, get more things at lower cost, money flows out without commensurate dollars flowing back in. It undermines the financial foundation of the community. The other dynamic that helped the decline of the community was urban renewal.
A lot of people in Tulsa call it urban removal because there is a highway, 244, that bisects what was the heart of the Greenwood community. Other things that really help speed along the decline of the community include the change in the economy. The Greenwood community really was more of a black Main Street than a black Wall Street. These are small businesses, mom and pop operations, and so forth. And so again, there was no mentorship process in place. So, when the original owners began to die, to move, et cetera, the businesses tended to fold. So, we are where we are in Greenwood today with this collection of kind of odd entities struggling for identity. And with that, I’ll cede that to Rick.
RICK LOWE: It’s so great to hear Hannibal speak about it because I was introduced to the depth of the Greenwood story through Hannibal’s book, “Black Wall Street.” The first thing I want just to contextualize, so many of you might be aware of Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class.” And you know there are elements of that that concept that I firmly believe in, right? Creativity is something that is essential for the vitality of place. But I kind of depart from Richard Florida’s perspective in the sense that you have to bring that creativity from the outside.
So, my approach has always been through the concept of social sculpture in terms of how do you get people within a place to participate creatively in the shaping and molding of the place that they live? So, I’m going to just go quickly through three different projects to show you some of my past work. Project Row Houses. For me as an artist, is I always try to hook and conceptualize a project to give it that symbolic value, and I was able to do that through the work of this artist, John Biggers, who talked about the importance of shotgun houses in Southern culture, and he connected it to West Africa, and talked about the creativity that happened in those communities, education, social safety net, and all that stuff. And so, I used that as the basis to create Project Row Houses, which was about organizing people, engaging them in a process of rebuilding.
I’m talking about all kinds of people. Artists, corporate people, community people, everybody’s participating. And so, the art is what kind of guides the process, though. Education, getting older people working with younger people. Transitional housing for single mothers. Trying to expand the notion of what we think about art and how art can play a creative role, and it doesn’t have to be in the traditional arts, like having these young mothers imagine what their home would be like, engaging them in a creative process with designers to do that becomes a big part of the process there. Also, in terms of business, how do we leverage and encourage creativity in the process of figuring out how to bring business back to our neighborhood?
Over the years, Project Row Houses preserved a part of history, but it also started looking into the future in terms of how this neighborhood could grow, going forward. It started out as a block and a half of 22 little shotgun houses. It’s kind of moved into about somewhere around five or six blocks that the project operates out of.
Then, there’s a project in Dallas, Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, which was a neighborhood that was built as an upscale neighborhood in the 1970s, went through downturn after depreciation, and turned into a place that symbolized by violence. The city was concerned about how do you deal with the violence?
And the thing that that struck me most about it was that the shift in identity from being an upscale neighborhood to a neighborhood of violence was very much connected to the demographics, which was a lot of immigrants and refugees. And so, I went through a process of trying to figure out how to engage the folks in this community to project a different notion, a different identity. Generally what I do in my projects is I pull people together, I draw upon the energy of other creative folks, and
we do research. We came up with this idea that that we needed to do workshops with folks and create a market. A market so that there could be some kind of cross-cultural communication so that people get to know each other better.
Because actually…and I got the tip for this one from a group of religious organizations who were determined not to invest more in culture as opposed to policing. The city response to dealing with the violence was to put up those police towers and that kind of stuff. But these women, these folks from the religious institution, they said, “We should start bringing people together, letting them share so they could kind of get to know each other.” And so, I took a tip from that and I decided well, how can culture bring people together? What’s a good medium? So one was to get them making things together, but then the second thing was that we should have markets so that people could come and share publicly. So, despite discouragement from many folks because they thought that the place was too violent, that people wouldn’t come, we started to host these little market activities in the heart of the neighborhood.
In fact, there was so much pushback on that, people wanted to do it on the edges of the neighborhood, but we wanted to have it in the center to get people to come in. Also, we look for other ways to engage people in a more public process there. We ended up putting these little, I call them little white cube galleries throughout the streets, throughout the neighborhood, which served as exhibition space for folks, but we could do exhibitions of youth or artists from different places, but they also serve as like bus stops for people too because there were no public amenities for this neighborhood. And these places have become, kind of gathering places for folks of different cultural activities.
And then, Kate mentioned the project in Athens, which came around the same time I was doing the project in Dallas. And since I had been working with refugees and immigrants, and Athens at the time, in 2015, was going through a major issue around the refugee crisis because mainly, it was having to deal with this kind of cultural diversity that the city hadn’t had to deal with prior. There was a little neighborhood square that’s called Victoria Square. This basically became Ground Zero for the refugee crisis because so many refugees ended up going to the square.
A lot of it was that as refugees are in camps in different places, and they were going to camps in Greece, when they would get to Athens, people would say, “You need to go to Victoria Square to make connections.” And so, they would end up finding a way there and camping out in the square. It became so intense that the business owners actually threatened to close all their businesses because they couldn’t continue to operate. So, I decided, this is a project through Documenta, and I was thinking about this situation in Dallas and how it was kind of similar, that there was a lack of understanding and a lack of value on what the immigrants and refugees brought to the place, and that was causing part of the tension. So, I wanted to find a space through which we could play that out, we could actually practice this idea of cultural sharing.
A lot of my work is about kind of how to understand architecture and place in a way that allows for cultural building to happen. And so, I found this little abandoned space and immediately started to pull together folks from the community to help actually design the space, build the space, put it together. Similar to the Dallas project, doing cultural programming workshops and things where people could actually come together and make things together. Actually doing things that are more strategic in other ways like, as I said, the business community had some real challenges there. One of the challenges that they were not communicating with each other in terms of how to deal with what they were really feeling about the refugee situation and how they could deal with it. We put together a newspaper that we produced weekly of two different businesses. We called it One-to-One.
Basically just so that we could get people to start thinking about each other in different ways. The space became, it’s a gathering place for folks. The fortunate thing about the location, and it was kind of my thinking about the reason I chose this space, it’s just off the square. Conventional wisdom would have said we should do this thing on the square where all the people are and that kind of stuff. But for me, intuitively I knew it needed to be off the square. And I found this space that’s a little corner space on a more pedestrian street, and what that did was open up a whole new possibility that not only we would function within the space, we also function in the street that goes directly to the square.
In the streets, a number of different things happened. A workshop of refugee youth an artist’s plan to make paper boats, and they were looking at having mainly youth. But then, lots of adults came to participate and it became much larger than we expected. Vyshyvanka Day, I think it’s the Georgian celebration that they hosted a fashion show. Africa Day and a traditional Greek celebration. These are the kinds of things that we’ve been doing constantly to engage folks, to have them interact and see things a little bit differently.
Now, I’m going to just briefly just say, There’s not a lot for me to say about the Greenwood art project at this point because we’re in the very early stages, so I wanted to give you a framework of how I work so you can kind of get a sense of where I’ll be going with this. If you want to talk about Black Wall Street and going forward, part of it will be looking back at the history of it, but the other part is trying to look at how do we recapture or create an opportunity for people to imagine themselves as rebuilding a Black Wall Street in the 21st century. Thank you.
OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.
Many thanks to Rick Lowe and Hannibal Johnson for joining us.
If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas and Stephanie Dockery, music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Tim Herro.
As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.
I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.