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How art is retelling powerful stories of Tulsa massacre, capturing community’s hopes

100 years ago Monday, a white mob descended on a Black neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing people and burning homes and businesses. The Tulsa massacre, as it came to be known, is being remembered in many ways — one of them, an art and history project known as the Greenwood Art Project. Jeffrey Brown has our report for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One hundred years ago Monday, a white mob descended on a Black neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing many people and burning homes and businesses.

    The Tulsa massacre is being remembered in many ways, one of them an art and history project.

    Jeffrey Brown has our report for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A Black man and white woman enter an elevator. This is a dance created by choreographer Ari Christopher in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2021.

    But 100 years ago here, just such an encounter, a Black man accused by a white woman of assaulting her in an elevator, a charge never tried or proven, led to the one of the worst acts of racial violence in the nation's history, an out-of-control white mob killing up to 300 Black people and destroying an area called Greenwood, a neighborhood so vibrant it was dubbed Black Wall Street.

    Part of the commemoration, the Greenwood Art Project, co-led by Houston-based artist Rick Lowe.

  • Rick Lowe:

    As I talked to the neighborhood folks, they all had such powerful stories that they were referencing about this history, and many of them through direct family relations.

    And that's what this project is all about. It's about taking those stories and contextualizing them in a way that people see the art in it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Some of the results can be seen around Tulsa already, installations of photos from the past, and one by contemporary Tulsa artist Crystal Campbell, vibrant murals representing pillars of the historic community, a collage by Jimmy Friday in the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge.

    A van being filled with art is taking visitors around the neighborhood.

  • Man:

    Right now, we're on historic Greenwood. This was the more business district that had more the doctors, the lawyers.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Those riding along will see the work of professional artists, but also that of community members who are getting a chance to have their voices heard.

  • Thersese Anderson-Aduni:

    I come from a long line of survivors, a long line of people that make a way out of no way. That's what my grandmother used to say.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    TheRese Anderson-Aduni's film "Rebuilding Black Wall Street" was created from her father's old home movies and photographs. It's partly an homage to a man who loved his community, a businessman who captured it with his cameras.

  • TheRese Anderson-Aduni:

    I remember, as a child, opening up a closet door, and all these cameras are falling out, because, every time a new one would come on the market, he'd get it. Him and my mom's biggest back-and-forth was about him spending money on equipment.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's also a tribute to resilience and survival.

    TheRese's father was of the generation that helped rebuild the neighborhood after the destruction.

  • TheRese Anderson-Aduni:

    At that time, it was about survival. It was about living the American dream as quietly as you can, and not drawing attention to yourself, so that it wouldn't be taken away.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In fact, what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was hidden away for many years after. City officials sought to erase the historical record.

    Black survivors, still living in fear for years after, often didn't discuss it with their own families. No one was ever held accountable, no compensation paid.

    There was no official record until a 2001 Oklahoma Commission report, previewed by news accounts, which is how Joi McCondichie first learned what had happened to her grandmother and others.

    As part of the Greenwood Art Project, captured in this video about McCondichie, she's organizing a June 1 Century Walk to replicate the flight by foot out of the city many took to escape the terror.

    Joi McCondichie A century walk is just a way to commemorate her by walking a mile in her shoes. That is just all it is too.

    I don't want to — it's not a protest. It's not a march. It's just a simple, quiet, memorable walk. And we're only doing 5.5 miles. But my grandmother walked over 60 some-odd miles.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Artist Alexander Tamahn and architect Deborah Richards, both transplants to Tulsa, are taking another approach, connecting the past to contemporary Black entrepreneurs.

    They're building large terra-cotta blocks, a nod to Tulsa's art deco tradition, to enhance today's business spaces.

  • Deborah Richards:

    The history of Greenwood is one of resilience and also building and rebuilding over time, because of what happened. And so we thought, how can we kind of build a workflow for this project for Tulsa that is about rebuilding and building and this kind of ceramics history?

  • Alexander Tamahn:

    A lot of the commemoration of the centennial is upon reflection and looking back.

    We really wanted to be more forward-thinking and more alive with, I think, hope for the future and just a progress. This is a part of my giving back by not just consuming, but really contributing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pakistani-born artist Sarah Ahmad, who first came to Tulsa for an arts residency, offers a different kind of connection.

  • Sarah Ahmad:

    The shared histories of state-sponsored violence, oppression, massacres of communities, and, side by side, the pictures look just exactly the same, so those connections, but also personal connections of personal history of trauma that my work is about, rooted in healing from trauma.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One event in the Greenwood Art Project was a recreation of a 1920s so-called Strutter's ball, complete with period dress.

    Amid the fun and strutting, an imagined moment when people realized what was beginning to happen in the streets outside.

  • Man:

    Hey, stop the music! Stop the music! All's hell is breaking loose on Greenwood! You all have to go home. Hug your families. Hide your valuables. What are you doing? Go!

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today, community members say Greenwood faces new challenges around gentrification and economic opportunities, and continuing issues that permeate all of society.

    Greenwood Art Project lead artist Rick Lowe:

  • Rick Lowe:

    Whether it is police brutality, whether it's gentrification, whether it's economic exclusion, all kinds of racial impacts that we need to be talking about.

    While the George Floyd issue kind of woke the nation up, the folks that we're working with in Tulsa, they have been living with this their entire lives.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Organizers hope this year's centennial commemoration honors the history, but also inspires action for the future.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That anniversary coming up on Monday and Tuesday.

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