It’s encouraging to see Tulsa’s art institutions making moves to make good on the commitments they put forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year. Both ahha Tulsa and Philbrook have major exhibits opening this month that make serious space for Black artists, lifting up their visions and voices in ways Tulsa hasn’t seen before.
But what grabbed my attention first was hearing that some rarely-seen photographs by the legendary Gaylor Oscar Herron were going up in the Philbrook rotunda alongside work by the great Don Thompson and the incisive young Ethiopian-American artist turned OKC-based urban planner Eyakim Gulilat. It’s a powerful trio: three photographers with deep ties to many generations of Greenwood, brought together for the first time to help us see the district as a living, breathing reality. Not just the Greenwood of 1921, or the Greenwood of the future—but the one that’s kept on rising, decade after decade. The Greenwood that’s been here all along, if only we had eyes to see it.
They’ve had the eyes. “Each artist is so powerful and each looks at the world in an individual way,” said Susan Green, who curated the “Views of Greenwood” exhibit, on view alongside “From the Limitations of Now.” “Once I realized that all three of them had really focused on Greenwood as a subject, and of course thinking about the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial and how we are reflecting and looking forward, it seems like the right time to bring their work together to highlight images of Greenwood from a period that is often forgotten.”
Green curated the show with an eye to giving Greenwood residents (past and present) a chance to tell their own stories through these photographs—and to clear up some myths. “One misunderstanding is that Greenwood just stopped in 1921, which is a travesty because it was an economic powerhouse and cultural center for so long after 1921,” she said. “People forget that systemic racism once again put its foot down on Greenwood with urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 1970s, destroyed the land, destroyed the properties and left it empty until the mid-1980s when UCAT (now OSU-Tulsa) was built. If all you see of Greenwood is the one block, the historic Greenwood business district, that's what you think Greenwood is. It's not. Greenwood stretched all the way to Pine, even further. I started thinking about it as a diaspora because it's bigger than just the land. It's the people who've moved away, who maybe lived outside of Greenwood specifically, but they came in and shopped or ate or supported their local businesses.”
It’s lucky that some local master photographers were working in Greenwood during this time and realized the need to know, preserve and remember. Thompson’s work witnesses the real-time, ongoing destruction of thriving businesses and livelihoods, such as the one documented in “Baltimore Barbershop.” “It's heart-wrenching, but so beautiful at the same time,” Green said. “The barber is putting his fingers so lightly on the counter. And what he's looking at are bulldozers tearing down the businesses across the street from him. And Don says he said something like, 'What do you think about this?' And the barber said, 'I'm going to be next. And I don't know what I'm going to do.' He's been here for years. This is his business. This is his livelihood. And it may have been his home too. Many people said he went by the name of Slick. And Don said the next day, he came back to take follow-up photographs and the building was gone. What Don says is that he couldn't beat the bulldozers and that his only regret is he didn't take more photographs so that we could really put a face to all the buildings.”
As an early ahha Tulsa resident artist, nearly a decade ago, Eyakem Gulilat spent a year in Greenwood trying to understand where he was standing. What does this land mean? Does the land hold memories? What happens to those memories when new buildings are built on top of them? His work on Black Placemaking asks questions that bring the urgency of these questions clearly and boldly before our eyes. Gulilat spent time talking with Greenwood residents and massacre survivors—one of whom, Catherine Young, appears in the mirror, telling her story, in Gulilat’s breathtaking photograph of a wall of family pictures in her house. “He realized this was itself a document of Greenwood, a testament to people who survived when outside forces didn’t want them to survive,” Green said.
As for Herron, whose hard-to-find 1976 book Vagabond is an underground photography classic, this is the first exhibit of his work in many years, and it’s a rare gift to experience more of his one-of-a-kind vision. Growing up in working-class North Tulsa, just east of Greenwood, Herron got to know parts of the city that others in wealthier enclaves might never access. He captured the street sweepers, the people building the tunnels under downtown, the kids hanging out on the railroad tracks. As a roving reporter for KOTV, he did human interest stories all over town, all the while finding treasure in trees and streetscapes and odd moments. “He says that the duty or the joy of a photograph is to tell this one moment,” Green said. “And that then you imagine what happened before, and what happened next. And you imagine what the viewer will see 20 or 30 years later—they themselves are then part of the story.”
“The irony, you know, is that Greenwood was a walkable neighborhood,” Green continued. “You could get your hair cut, buy your clothes, go to the movies, send your kid to get a gallon of milk, get your medicine, whatever you needed was there. And what are we wanting right now? Walkable neighborhoods. That was Greenwood. And what did we do? We knocked it down. In whatever position we are in our community, we can start asking, What is the full story here? If this was a decision that was made in the 1960s and then carried through into the ‘70s and ‘80s and it impacted this community in this way, what are the decisions we're making right now going to do? I'm hoping this exhibition will foster that kind of thoughtfulness and change, no matter who you are across the city.”
Bolstered by statements from the artists and by input from community members and outside readers, “Views of Greenwood” hopes to be a testament to the continuing history of a district that’s been the heart of Tulsa for so long—in tragedy, in triumph, in the everyday work of trying to build a life that can last. It’s also an effort by a major arts institution to make sure more voices are heard in the ongoing story of Tulsa. “For so long, we've only focused on one story,” Green said. “Who owned this land before Genevieve and Waite Phillips? Whose allotment was it before that? How have we interacted with other parts of our community? What steps did we take to make sure everyone was welcome at Philbrook? Have we taken enough steps? And what else do we need to do? If our institution can change, then hopefully we are one piece in a larger whole to make this bigger cultural change in the city of Tulsa.”
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