Using Arts and Culture as a Frame to Approach Social Issues: The Greenwood Art Project in Tulsa

An elevator. Train tracks. These two settings were sites of profound trauma and historical significance in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The elevator where a young black man bumped into a white woman one hundred years ago in Greenwood, setting off events that became the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The train tracks dividing the Black part of town from the white, that were also the path Greenwood’s survivors followed on foot to escape the killing of hundreds of residents and the burning and destruction of their district known as Black Wall Street.

In 2021, the elevator and the train tracks also became art. They were both art installation and storytelling projects that emerged from the Greenwood Art Project. The initiative, funded through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, was a partnership of Bloomberg with the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission to add a cultural component to the centennial commemoration.

Over a period of three years, lead artist Rick Lowe facilitated a process of deep engagement with the Greenwood community and 32 local artists to tell their stories and activate the process of healing. The Greenwood Art Project launched as a biennial from May 26 to October 25, 2021 with local installations including murals, sculptures, performances, historical tours and interactive technology.

This was the first time the City of Tulsa was officially involved and the first time the city’s residents as a whole engaged in a broader, open discussion of the massacre. What the project partners found was that “the city was not ready for a memorial, but needed a conversation,” said Stephanie Dockery of Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts Team.

Artists initiated that public conversation by telling the story of Black Wall Street and their community’s past, present and future.

L. Joi McCondichie, whose grandmother escaped the massacre as a nine-year-old child, produced A Century Walk, inviting persons of every background to walk with her on the train tracks that Greenwood residents used to flee the massacre in the middle of the night. This community walk retraced the steps and paid homage to the experiences and lives of Black people who fled on foot more than 40 miles north from Tulsa to Pawhuska, the smoke from their burned homes and businesses billowing behind them.

Rick Lowe approached the Greenwood Art Project not by coming up with a preconceived idea, but by hosting dinners and discussions with the community. “He started the project by not having a project,” said Anita Contini, program lead for Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts. “He understood it wasn’t just about his work but about local artists and bringing together the community.”

Lowe along with artist William Cordova curated a permanent installation along I-22, the interstate highway built during urban renewal that cut through the district and precipitated the second destruction of Greenwood. The installation transforms this destructive creation instead into the “Pathway to Hope,” a pedestrian walkway that symbolically reconnects the district.

Documentaries about the artists and projects are collected on The Greenwood Art Project website. One in particular, a Visual Poem for TheRese Aduni, a local filmmaker, playwright, and dancer, stays with me. In it, the Tulsa native shares a personal story of turning depression and loss into resurrection and hope.

“They might want to kill us,” she says. “They might want us to die. But we can be resurrected, we can be revived. We can revive ourselves as a community.”