“People are power!” That greeting is repeated as groups of people enter the Black Wall Street Gallery in Greenwood, Oklahoma.
Those words serve not only as a message upon entering the space, but also a recognition of the communal unity that created the success of the historic Greenwood District, which was also known as Black Wall Street.
In May 1921, the city’s Black Wall Street was decimated. The thriving community, which was made up of black-owned businesses, churches and homes, was bombed and burned to the ground by white mobs after a black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Thirty-five city blocks of the community were completely destroyed and it’s estimated that up to 300 people were killed. No one was ever prosecuted for the violence.
“Black Wall Street couldn’t have happened if all those people didn’t come together with the same vision to succeed,” said Elizabeth Henley, founder of Black Moon, an artist collective in Tulsa. “And, they were just living life and being successful and growing and thriving. We can do the same.”
Henley, who was born and raised in Tulsa, says she started Black Moon last April as a means of representation. “I knew all of these creative, young, black artists but we really didn’t have venues or spaces to show our art,” she said. “So, I pulled together as many people as possible, so we would have a platform and be a force of upliftment and change.”
Today, the Black Wall Street Gallery is part of Black Wall Street Arts, a nonprofit endeavor that includes the new art gallery and a theater company. The idea behind the gallery, which opened last September, was to use art as a vehicle to build community and create dialogue around issues of social justice. The paintings, pictures and sculptures in the gallery are mainly the works of two local artists for “The Conciliation Series.” Each month, the gallery pairs a black artist with a white artist and features their art.
The goal of the yearlong series is to be a platform for local artists, especially black artists, to showcase their talents. Beyond that, the purpose of the exhibition is to create more positive relationships between the black and the white communities in Tulsa who have long been marred by the city’s racist past.
“I decided on the ‘Conciliation Series’ because I have a problem with the word reconciliation,” Dr. Ricco Wright, the gallery’s founder and artistic director, said. “Reconciliation in my mind is restoring friendly relations, which presupposes that we created these friendly relations in Tulsa. But I don’t know a time in our history when we’ve ever created them.”
As the centennial of the massacre approaches, the city has made efforts at reconciliation by renaming streets, some redevelopment and most recently in 2018, calls by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum to reopen the investigation into whether mass graves from the violence do exist.
However, Tulsa native Wright says that while there is more acknowledgment, important factors are still missing from the conversation. It’s why he feels the focus needs to be on “conciliation” — where there is an opportunity for mediation between these two communities, as well as an apology and reparation.
As Tulsa continues to makes efforts to reconcile its past, black creatives are coming together, combining art and entrepreneurship in order to share untold stories of this community and revive Black Wall Street’s legacy of excellence.
These black artists are dedicated to using their platforms to raise awareness, help this community heal and honor the pioneers of Black Wall Street, who laid a foundation of community wealth through collaboration.