Black and independently owned, Black Wall Street Gallery is unique in Tulsa. Its founder, Dr. Ricco Wright, finds unprecedented ways to rebuild the resilience of the once-thriving Greenwood community, which was also known as Black Wall Street.
February is Black History Month and honours the too-often neglected accomplishments of African Americans. But Ricco Wright gives people more than 28 days. He mingles black and white talent at his art gallery to honour Black Wall Street. He is building a community to counter Tulsa’s racist past and uplift the black community of the future. Everything is part of a thought-through process to end the vicious cycle of racial inequality still embedded in the city of Tulsa today.
One hundred years ago Tulsa was known for the greatest concentration of black wealth in the United States in the segregated neighbourhood of Greenwood. It was a thriving and self-sufficient community, which was made up of black-owned businesses, churches and homes. But this neighbourhood was bombed and burned to the ground by white mobs after a black man was unfairly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. And so Tulsa became known by one of the worst racial episodes of violence and property dispossession in U.S. history.
Although Greenwood was once the black Mecca of the US, this is not the way history was told at school in Tulsa when Wright was a child. ‘It was much later while living in New York when I realized that many people there knew about Black Wall Street than most citizens of Tulsa did. It was such a foreign thing to me. I used to hear only about the massacre’, admits Wright.
This is not Black history. This is American history
Most Americans have been taught only until recently about a tragic ‘riot’ rather than a ‘massacre’.
It is estimated that up to 300 African Americans were killed. Families have never been compensated for what happened in the massacre and no white person has ever been prosecuted for the violence even though several black people had been.
‘African Americans haven’t been able to control our own narrative, and seldom do we get the opportunity to tell our story. In Tulsa, for instance, the focus is very much on the massacre but very little on Black Wall Street. We want people to know what our ancestors built in the face of Jim Crow and the type of resilience it took for them to rebuild their community after it was burned to the ground’ explains Wright.
This one version of America’s past preserves misconceptions of the present state of being black and alienates the future of black communities.
Changing the language from riot to massacre is not about semantics. Rather, it’s about being honest about our shared history. Only then can we move toward healing, because knowing the truth is a precondition for healing.
Healing is part of Wright’s vision to unite a city, which would do well to acknowledge its painful past, understand the legacy of racism and build an inclusive future. Wright calls it socioracial idealism: conciliation, healing, unity and love.
With a doctorate in mathematics education from Columbia University in New York, Wright has approached racial inequality and structural racism in Tulsa rather as a philosopher, a discipline he loves. Art and the gallery are fortunate consequences.
‘After leaving New York, I wanted to give back to my hometown of Tulsa, where there is a lot of work to be done’.
Black Wall Street Gallery is transforming the city
Since September 2018, the gallery has been providing a space for artistic expression, conversation, healing and building community. Wright has created a sequence of experiential exhibitions, the first called “The Conciliation Series.” Black and white artists have collaborated to raise awareness around issues of social justice by remembering the silenced history of the men and women who remarkably contributed to Black Wall Street.
‘I called it conciliation on purpose because I don’t believe in reconciliation in the context of US history. Reconciliation means restoring friendly relations, which suggests that blacks and whites in the US were once friendly with one another. But there’s nothing friendly about slavery, Jim Crow, and the like. Furthermore, insurance companies called the tragedy a riot because they didn’t want to pay the claims made by black merchants and homeowners. Calling it a riot put the responsibility on both parties rather than on the white mobs. But this was not the case. It was a massacre. Therefore, reconciliation is not the path.’
Next month on Friday March 6th the Gallery will officially launch ‘The Healing Series’, a six-month experiential exhibition featuring local and regional artists. ‘People can come here to have a black culture experience, and most importantly, from a black point of view. It is part of the educational experience’ explains Wright.
Almost every major US city has a Chinatown or Little Italy, where city dwellers go to those areas and celebrate those cultures. Tulsa has Black Wall Street, which has a rich black history, but the city has not always found it necessary to celebrate that culture.
Heritage and cultural preservation strengthen social cohesion
After the massacre in 1921, the area was rebuilt but was systematically destroyed again by the urban renewal going on during the 1950s. There are currently big concerns about gentrification and how to protect the legacy of Greenwood, where even historical markers have been removed and never replaced by new developers. The rapid gentrification of Greenwood is erasing Tulsa’s black history.
In that sense, Black Wall Street Gallery is a conduit for cultural preservation to bring back heritage and culture to this neighbourhood. It will increase prospect to restore black businesses in Greenwood and to keep the black talent in Tulsa.
Wright hopes with his vision to empower and uplift the black community to thrive, as all those people did in Black Wall Street with that same vision to succeed.
Three decades after slavery was abolished and segregation was still enforced, Black Wall Street was flourishing. The massacre changed the scope of what the neighbourhood was and its ability to be self-sufficient.
People need to know those voices from the past
Black people in Tulsa try to survive. They are hindered by what it means to be black in America. But there are so many things that talented people could actually achieve. They are an untapped resource for the city.
Unfortunately Tulsa’s rates of violent crime are well over the national average. Abusive police intimidation targeting black people has been going on for generations and it has diminished the potential to uplift the black community.
According to Human Rights Watch, North Tulsa (where Greenwood is located) has a poverty rate of about 33 percent, noticeably higher unemployment rates, and lower life expectancies. These societal problems need to be addressed by finding innovative ways to engage black communities, not by police. In fact, black people should own the engagement process like Wright is doing in Tulsa or Olantuji Oboi Reed is doing in Chicago.
When I first came back to Tulsa and started up the gallery, people thought I was joking. Even some black people were critical of somebody doing something apart from them. It is really interesting to see how white supremacy works. It cut through us so deeply that we end up replicating it.
When Black Street Gallery was inaugurated, more than 2000 people from all backgrounds, rich-poor, black-white, came to the opening. People were focusing on the positive and paying homage to the Black Wall Street pioneers, about whom too many knew too little.
Black Street Gallery took citizens by surprise but they are embracing the initiative because it has meaning. Even some white people told Wright it was the first time they felt they could be part of Black Wall Street.
‘When you do something with substance, it is undeniable for people. We are reclaiming our space and time in Greenwood. It is a nod to the past we are upholding and the future we are building. Anybody can embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of Black Wall Street.
Wright is successfully emulating the resilience of his ancestors and saying boldly: ‘We can do the same.’
“We don’t heal in isolation, but in community.” – S. Kelley Harrell
On 10 October 2020 Ricco Wright opened an additional Black Wall Street Gallery in 361 Canal Street, New York City.