Race-Riot Drama 'Black Wall Street' At Artists Collective

Artists Collective, Mark Twain House present race-riot drama 'Black Wall Street'

In 1921, Greenwood, Okla., was a successful, predominantly black community in Tulsa, with 600 businesses and about 10,000 residents, living and thriving together alongside a few other minorities, mainly Native Americans and Jews.

Greenwood was so affluent it was nicknamed Black Wall Street. But, as Celeste Walker describes it, in 1921 the residents of the neighborhood were like passengers on the Titanic.

"These people had no idea that in only a few hours their city would be destroyed. They're like those people dancing on the Titanic who didn't know that in a few hours they would be under the sea," Walker said. "Their city was unsinkable. They had no idea something this awful could happen to them."

A race riot in 1921 destroyed the entire neighborhood and killed at least 300 residents. Walker, a Houston-based playwright, has written a play about the rise and fall of the African-American paradise. "Black Wall Street" will be performed Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16, at Artists Collective in Hartford, in collaboration with the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford.

The play has been produced by Harlem-based Shades of Truth Theater, a stage company dedicated to depicting the African American experience.

The story of Greenwood is one of rapid rise and shockingly abrupt fall. In 1906, young black entrepreneur O.W. Gurley bought 40 acres of land in a black-only neighborhood of Tulsa. The area was renamed Greenwood, after Greenwood, Miss. He opened some businesses and quickly, other businesses and other enterprising black folks followed. Within 14 years, Greenwood had a bank, a hospital, 21 churches, 30 restaurants, two movie theaters, 41 grocery stores, a school system, in total 600 business, as well as six private airplanes and about 10,000 residents.

On Memorial Day weekend 1921, a young resident of Greenwood, Dick Rowland, went into downtown Tulsa to take advantage of the high holiday weekend foot traffic to make some money shining shoes. During his day, Rowland wanted to take a bathroom break, and the only bathroom open to black people was on the fifth floor of a nearby department store. While riding the elevator to the restroom, the elevator operator, a newly hired white woman, stopped the elevator not-flush with the floor. Rowland tripped while getting out. Reaching out to grab something to break his fall, he grabbed the young woman's arm. She screamed, Rowland ran, and rumors ran wild that the elevator operator had been assaulted. Racial tensions escalated over the next two days, ending in an arson fire that burned Greenwood to the ground.

Michael Green, the producer and director of Shades of Truth Theater, said the troupe was founded 15 years ago "to tell the stories that are not being told." It seems the story of Greenwood fits this category well.

"I spent 20 years in Texas. My stepfather is from Oklahoma. But I didn't find out about the tragedy of Greenwood until 1994, during a visit to New York," Green said. "It's hard to explain the myriad of emotions I felt, but I was certainly upset that I hadn't heard about it. Nobody mentioned it to me when I was visiting in Oklahoma. Nobody knew about what happened in 1921."

About three years ago, Green – who also runs the summer drama program at Artists Collective – called Walker, his frequent collaborator, and asked her to write something about Greenwood. As it happened, she already had, a brief skit that was performed at her church for a Black History Month event. She expanded it into a full-length play.

"It isn't taught in schools. I want to bring attention to something nobody ever talked about," Walker said. "For years, the story wasn't known. It was buried, maybe whispered about."

Walker said she has a specific goal when she writes historical plays. "I want to be able to influence the curriculum in the schools," she said.

"BLACK WALL STREET" will be performed Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16, at 8 p.m. both days at the Artists Collective Theater, 1200 Albany Ave. in Hartford. Admission is $25 in advance, $20 in advance for members of the collective and the Mark Twain House, $30 at the door for all. A third show may be added if demand exists. Tickets and information: marktwainhouse.org

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