The artist’s Black Wall Street project is about Tulsa 100 years ago – and today


Artist Paul rucker is fearless when it comes to experiencing terrible times in American history.

“The work I do mostly revolves around things I’ve never learned about,” says Rucker. On Zoom, he discusses his work in progress, Three streets of the black wall, which evokes and honors the achievements of black entrepreneurs and visionaries who created thriving spaces of opportunity and sanctuary after the end of the Civil War.

One of them, in Tulsa, Okla., Was destroyed by a white mob 100 years ago on May 31, 1921. The catastrophic attack on what was known as Black Wall Street could be the worst episode of racial violence in American history, with 35 blocks of the black community destroyed and flattened.

“Ten thousand blacks were left homeless,” says Rucker. “Churches have been set on fire. Schools. Libraries. Theaters. Everything in the black community.”

The Greenwood area of ​​Tulsa was a thriving commercial and residential area before the Tulsa Race Massacre, as it is now called. The destruction of black wealth and property – by arson, firebombs and even dynamite dropped from planes – lasted two days. The atrocity has not been mentioned or has been underestimated in the state’s official history for decades. Police records, newspaper articles and other evidence from the time have disappeared from the archives. It wasn’t until last year that history became part of the curriculum in Oklahoma schools – after the HBO show Guardian helped to make it known in popular consciousness in 2019.

His first episode begins with a shocking – and precise – depiction of chaos. “A lot of people were giving Guardian a lot of credit for bringing attention to Black Wall Street, “Rucker says.” Well, people in the black community have been talking about it for years. “

Rucker’s multimedia work addresses mass incarceration, lynching, police brutality, and the various insidious ways America is shaped by our legacy of slavery. His 2018 TED speech, on the appropriation of symbols of systemic racism, has nearly two million views.

A world power of art, Paul Rucker, who recently turned 53, can count seven museum exhibitions this year. His resume reads like a list of prestigious grants and scholarships, and he was the first artist in residence at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. But before any recognition and awards, Rucker worked as a janitor at the Seattle Art Museum. He used leftover art supplies to fulfill his vision, as he couldn’t afford to buy new ones. Born in Anderson, SC, Rucker’s father was a yard worker, born in 1905.

Paul Rucker’s work will be featured in seven museum exhibitions in 2021 (Ryan Stevenson / Paul Rucker)

“He was 63 when I was born,” says Rucker. “He grew up during the height of the lynching, so he was present on Black Wall Street. He didn’t tell me about the bad things that might have happened to him. But he had to be careful. He had to be careful of what was going on. he looked. There were people around the time he was born who were lynched because they knocked on the wrong door. “

Paul Rucker remembers seeing Klan gatherings when he was little. As a young teenager, he sat on the street and ate ice cream while watching a Klan parade. About seven years ago, Rucker started sewing Klan dresses himself. “I use kente fabric. I use camouflage, ”he explained in his TED talk. The material also represents how racism is camouflaged. “We have separate schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. And it’s not the people who wear balaclavas that keep these policies in place. My work focuses on the long term impact of slavery. The stealth aspect of racism is part of its power. Racism has the power to hide. And when he hides, he is kept safe, because he blends in. “

With his Tulsa project, initially called Banking in black, Rucker had initially planned to build a facility using the guts of an old bank. But COVID-19 has changed everything. The project is now virtual, with three universities involved: George Washington University, Virginia Commonwealth University (where Rucker recently talked about the project) and Arizona State University, which is planning some sort of physical exhibit with the project this fall.

“Paul asks us to testify, that’s for sure”, declares Miki Garcia, director of the ASU Art Museum. Her school is partnering with Rucker, she says, in all kinds of ways this year, including a huge group project called Cancellation of time: the art and stories of incarceration. “There are stories that surface that have been intentionally, I believe, obscured. So whether it is the story of the mass incarceration or the dresses of the Klan or the massacre of the Tulsa race, he makes the story viscerally present. “

In this project, the story focuses on three Black Wall Streets: in Tulsa, Durham, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. A website, designed with the help of students and teachers Kevin patton at GWU’s Corcoran School of Art and Design, will immerse visitors in these communities at their peak.

Visit the Three Black Wall Streets website (Paul Rucker)

“We are not including any of these destruction images on this website,” says Rucker. “Zero.”

While some black communities, such as those of Tulsa and Rosewood, Florida, were savagely destroyed by mobs in the early 1920s, Rucker points to another type of economic violence that wrecked the thriving black commercial districts of the county. Mid-century urban renewal programs prioritized roads over black communities. They tore up black neighborhoods and separated them, in cities from Syracuse to Miami to Indianapolis, Houston and Oakland.

Much of my work is about violence. I mean, I have more dead work than anyone I know. It wears me out, but I have to tell these stories because they need to be told.

Artist Paul Rucker

“A lot of my work is about violence,” Rucker says. “I mean, I have more dead work than anyone I know. It wears me out, but I have to tell these stories because they need to be told. [But] this may be my last project on race and dealing with atrocities. “

The legacy of these economic atrocities, Rucker says, includes the erosion of black wealth, the coordinated exclusion of blacks from boards of directors and leadership positions, and from representation in classrooms. Over the past year, Rucker has acted as a mentor for a group of students called BASE – Black Art Student Empowerment at Virginia Commonwealth University, and worked with them to develop a database of businesses owned by blacks to be included in the final project. “

“It is important that we rise up in this culture and this heritage that has been left behind,” said Shayne Herrera, the group’s president. Senior VCU, he focuses on painting and printmaking. Too often he’s the only African American in the room. “Paul has met with us every week during the pandemic to make sure that we can create that space of, you know, black creativity and safety.”

Ultimately, Rucker wants to inspire audiences to understand a complicated and cruel story in order to move forward with compassion. Three streets of the black wall, He said, it’s not just something that happened 100 years ago. It is the ashes of destruction that are still smoldering.

“[Three Black Wall Streets] It’s also a question of student loans, ”says the artist, and of owning real estate. People ask Rucker about his Klan robes all the time, he adds, admiring his “radical” artwork. “But the most radical thing I’ve done as a black man – as a artist – buys a property. “

Rucker owns a home near the VCU campus, and what was once Richmond, Va., Black Wall Street, a place where the first black woman became bank president, In the early 1900s. Today, Rucker is one of the only black owners in the area. When the streets of the country’s Black Wall were ravaged and ruined, he says, we ended up with moral and spiritual bankruptcy.

Copyright NPR 2021.

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