Preserving memories: Archaeology and art in Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was a topic discussed in hushed-tones and rarely within the context of American schools and universities until recent years. Largely omitted from Oklahoma history books, the story of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the United States was overlooked for decades and many hoped to erase the event from Tulsa’s history altogether. But with its centennial approaching, those long-silenced cries of injustice are ringing loud and true.

Mapping historical trauma in Tulsa

Alicia Odewale
TU Professor Alicia Odewale

Tulsa natives Alicia Odewale, TU assistant professor of anthropology, and Parker VanValkenburgh, Brown University Assistant Professor of Anthropology, are directing a project on behalf of the 1921-2021 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, titled Mapping Historical Trauma in Tulsa from 1921-2021. “Through a multi-year project bringing together digital mapping, collaborative archaeological excavation, local exhibit development, and public presentation of research results, we hope to create new, critical sites of memory for Tulsans to connect to this dark moment in our shared history and consider its legacies and echoes in the present day,” Odewale explained.

Preserving the memory of Tulsa’s historically black Greenwood District while highlighting the multitude of ongoing resurgence efforts on behalf of Tulsa’s resilient North Tulsa community is not only about investigating the race massacre but also entails reflecting on the enterprising spirit of Black Wall Street that endures. First, Odewale and VanValkenburgh will work with TU graduate students to develop the Greenwood Centennial Resource Collection (GCRC), a public database with digitized archival material that will centralize data from university and state archives. “We want to pull together the once scattered information about 1921 and the decades that followed into one resource and place this searchable, online tool in the hands of students, community members, future researchers and anyone interested in learning more about this history 100 years in the making,” she said.

Bridging the past and the present

In stage two, they will generate a Greenwood historical geographic information system (GIS) website, which is a map-based online portal designed to enable users to visualize Greenwood before and after the massacre. The portal will enable users the opportunity to interact with layered maps embedded with primary data such as photos, newspaper articles and written testimonies that document the impact of historical trauma in Greenwood through time. Odewale said, “By placing these events and stories on a map, locating them on streets and blocks that Tulsans still transit every day, we will provide a tool that bridges the past and present.”

Excavating in the Greenwood District

With the help of Oklahoma Archaeological Survey geophysical experts, Odewale and VanValkenburgh will conduct surveys and select key Greenwood District excavation sites. During the centennial year 2021, the public will be able to roll up their sleeves and join them in the trenches as they recover footprints of Black Wall Street’s past. Expect to see students from surrounding universities and Tulsa Public Schools alongside descendants and community leaders joining this six-week excavation to complement coursework on Oklahoma history. “This is not only a free invitation to take part in making history in Tulsa, but this is also a chance for anyone who is interested to join in the process of discovery and learn about the role archaeology can play in our communities,” Odewale said.

After the excavations, an exhibit planned for installation in the newly renovated and expanded Greenwood Cultural Center facility will feature a presentation of new digital resource tools along with any recovered archaeological material from Greenwood sites. “We will host an opening day gallery talk to provide an overview of the project and results,” she added. If any additional artifacts are recovered, they will be held in TU’s Historical Archaeology and Heritage Studies Laboratory and remain open to the public.

TU and the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial

Jeff Van Hanken
TU Professor Jeff Van Hanken

TU is also partnering with the 1921-2021 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission on the Greenwood Art Project. Jeff Van Hanken, a TU associate professor of film studies and the Arts and Cultural Committee chair for the 2021 Centennial Commission Steering Committee, is working alongside internationally renowned artist and MacArthur Fellow Rick Lowe to collaborate with local artists to tell the story of Greenwood through a series of eight community-based art installations. “These kinds of social and community impact projects that invite art into the conversation are growing nationally,” Van Hanken said. “TU is in a position to build on it and contribute to it as a university and as faculty and students.”

Learn more about TU’s involvement with the Greenwood Art project here. 

TU Professor Bob Pickering
TU Professor Bob Pickering

Bob Pickering, professor of anthropology and founding director of TU’s master’s degree program in museum science and management, and Odewale have also stepped in to offer their expertise for the city of Tulsa’s mass graves search. Pickering’s name was added to the newly formed Historical and Narrative Context Committee that will work alongside the public oversight committee and the physical investigation team to conduct new surveys in at least three sites previously designated as potential sites of mass graves.

Odewale, who is possibly the only black archaeologist currently working in the state of Oklahoma, has agreed to serve on all three committees to ensure cross-over communication and transparency between the panels and offer important representation for Tulsans and persons of color on the physical investigation team.

These are platforms for significant and necessary conversations. There is no bandage to repair the massacre’s deep historical scar, but with the help of TU professors like Odewale, Van Hanken and Pickering, the memories of Black Wall Street’s printing press, a 54-room hotel and – more importantly – citizens will not fade with time. They will be emblazoned on Tulsa’s collective memory.