My research into the Tulsa Race Massacre had begun years prior to developing my response to the 1% for Art Sculptural Installation Project for the Cox Business Convention Center in the spring and summer of 2019, but as I searched the Online Collections Database of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, trying to find key moments that spoke of Tulsa’s innovative and inventive history, I kept getting lost in the documents and photos related to the massacre.
One newspaper clipping from the Tulsa Daily World, published June 3, 1921, contained two articles. One had to do with the high volume of telephone calls recorded on the evening of May 31 and all day June 1, 1921 – about double the usual call volume.
The back of the clipping contains a second article entitled, “Officials Under Fire At Meeting: Condemned by Citizens at Mass Meet for Failing to Prevent Riot.”
The article reports on a meeting of Tulsa citizens held Thursday morning, June 2, 1921, to establish relief measures for destitute blacks following the event now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. The meeting was led by L. J. Martin, who stated that the county and city authorities “fell down completely” in their duties during the emergency.
Here’s the pertinent section of one clipping that I took note of:
An Officlal Collapse.
Martin declared vehemently that county and city authorities ‘fell down completely’ in the emergency, at a time when most of the trouble could have been averted by the prompt actions of a few courageous officers. At the same time he did not spare the citizenship of Tulsa that meekly stood by and watched the depredations. (Bold, italics mine) He declared that police protection in the city and county have been gradually but surely failing, and that there is substantial evidence of inefficiency.
Eventually, I was able to focus on other aspects of Tulsa’s past that reflected the theme the Request for Proposals wanted applicants to highlight, having to do, again, with Tulsa’s innovative and inventive history.
But my response to the sculptural installation project did have an underlying message from the start relating to the Tulsa Race Massacre and the present moment in time – the 100 year anniversary of the massacre, just five days from today. One I put in print as well as mentioned verbally during my final presentation to the selection committee.
In a subsequent conversation with one committee member, I was told that my piece was selected because of its iconic focus on ideas, invention, and innovation – themes central to many of the conferences that use the Cox Business Convention Center – as well as how well it dovetailed with Mayor G. T. Bynum’s concepts related to Tulsa’s past and current periods of transformation, as well as his focus on a globally competitive future.
Little did the selection committee know that this was by design – I’d studied at least two of Mayor Bynum’s State of the City speeches and borrowed heavily from his words while crafting my proposal. Maybe I should buy G. T. a gift card to Starbucks as a token of my appreciation.
A few months after receiving the news that my piece was selected, but prior to finalizing the lightbulb’s look, I had a conversation with one of the selection committee members.
At that time, I was thinking that the stainless steel lightbulb’s cookie-cutter-like cutouts, which would allow light to spill out of the bulb, might be shaped like hands, to tie into my typical artistic focus of the human hand, as well as to “reflect” the saying, “Many hands make light work”. Not just generic hands, either: I thought it’d be neat if actual Tulsans’ hand silhouettes could be collected from all four corners of the city by volunteers who would go out in pairs of one white and one black person to engage the public. People would be informed about the project, generating interest, and willing participants would have one of their hands traced. Then, I’d translate that information digitally, pardon the pun, to the software controlling my plasma cutting CNC machine, which would do the “cookie cutting”.
However, in response, I was told to keep a laser focus on the primary themes the selection committee liked: invention, innovation, idea generation, etc. I was told that the Tulsa Race Massacre wasn’t something the committee members wanted me to highlight.
So I dutifully compiled, honing the focus of the piece to the general topic of invention and the like. I remained focused even during the tumultuous spring and summer of 2020 which sprung up suddenly and forcefully from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I remained focused when President Trump decided to hold a rally – where, of all places? – not two blocks from the Cox Business Convention Center, and not only that, but on a day revered by many blacks, “Juneteenth”. My studio assistant, Niels Davis, and I had a number of conversations about the topic at that time. We wrestled with how to respond. He was in favor of a more direct response. I was dubious.
Why? No doubt I was genuinely wanting to remain adherent to the direction of the selection committee member I’d spoken with many months prior. But to this day, I would say that not every piece of art need be a response to current or historical events. Some art is meant to be “light and fluffy”, some political, some social, some perhaps about ineffable, esoteric concerns or even simply sensations rendered aesthetic and abstract. There are no rules in art, which is one of the things that makes it such an amazing pursuit.
Ultimately, the topic subsided, at least in my studio, and Niels and I resumed our typical habit of retreating into our own Bluetooth headphone enabled worlds. I’m not sure what Niels would listen to, but as I used the grinders and the sanders and even times when no loud tool or machine was being used, I’d typically go to the Libby app on my phone, select an audio book, and listen to the narration. It’s not an exaggeration to say I listened to thirty or more books, some many hundreds of pages long, over the course of creating Highlight, and dozens and dozens of podcasts, as well.
One day in perhaps January of 2021, having finished a book, I returned to the Libby app and searched for another one to read. I noticed that my wife, Nan, had put the audio book of To Kill A Mockingbird, by author Harper Lee, and read by the actress Sissy Spacek, on hold, and that it was ready to borrow. She was using it as a part of homeschooling our youngest, Nate, who’s just two days from graduating from high school. But since it was available, I opened the book, and soon, Sissy’s voice, soothingly Southern, filled my ears.
Now, I’d never read the book before, but I had watched the movie, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, at least a couple times. To my recollection, it wasn’t until I had gotten chapters into the audio book when I realized that there was a curious, definite overlay between Mockingbird’s story line and the Tulsa Race Massacre, as I understood it. Both hinged on a man who was accused of trying to rape or in some way sexually accost a woman. A black man. A white woman. (In both cases, both the novel’s fictional one and Tulsa’s historical one, the accusation was misleading and false. In both cases, there were underlying, ulterior motivations involved. Racial motivations.)
Then, one afternoon, as I recall, as I was using a die grinder to clean up the edges of the lightbulb shaped cutouts on the large lightbulb we’d constructed, I was electrified to hear the following words roll off of Sissy’s lips, as Scout, the young girl whose father, Atticus Finch, was a court-appointed defense attorney for the accused rapist, Tom Robinson.
”… after our meal Jem and I were settling down to a routine evening, when Atticus did something that interested us: he came into the livingroom carrying a long electrical extension cord. There was a light bulb on the end.
’I’m going out for a while,’ he said. ‘You folks’ll be in bed when I come back, so I’ll say good night now.’
With that, he put his hat on and went out the back door.”
Let me tell you, when I heard those words, and the ones that soon followed, after Scout, her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, curious, followed Atticus downtown to the jail, my ears pricked up.
Then, I heard Sissy-as-Scout say, “As we walked up the sidewalk, we saw a solitary light burning in the distance. ‘That’s funny,’ said Jem, ‘jail doesn’t have an outside light.’
’Looks Like it’s over the door.’ Said Dill.
A long extension cord ran between the bars of a second floor window and down the side of the building. In the light from its bare bulb, Atticus was sitting propped against the front door. He was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head.”
To me, as I stopped working for perhaps five or ten seconds to shake my head and mutter, under my breath, “Oh boy”, the implications were self evident. The overlay of the stories was too close for comfort. I couldn’t disregard the writing on the wall. The writing on the page. The words on Sissy’s lips.
It had happened to me before, and it seemed like it was happening again. I was finding that my artwork was expressing its own meaning to me. This time, it was happening, it seemed, through the vehicle of someone else’s creation. The author Harper Lee’s. Echoes of deep calling to deep. Echoing out through the decades, out from another era, out through previously unread words, previously untouched pages. Echoes of meaning that I had, in this case, intended at the outset, though in the intervening months, had suppressed. Intentionally set aside. Not helpful. Besides the point. Confusing. Potentially problematic. Following marching orders.
What does one of that? Coincidence? Absolutely a possibility. I –
I just had a thought. As I said, I’d never read To Kill a Mockingbird prior to listening to it in audio book form earlier this year, but I have watched the movie. I’m going to take a quick break from writing this morning, at (checks watch) 2:51 am, and see if I can pull this scene up. Hold that thought…
Well, I just watched the scene where Scout, Jem, and Dill save Atticus from a lynch mob at the jail. Behind Atticus, on the porch, there’s what looks like a lighted, hooded floor lamp.
So there you go. I thought what I’d find was a long electrical cord hanging down out of a window with a bare bulb on the end of it, a la Philip Guston’s later figurative work. A la Harper Lee’s book. But no. For whatever reason, the film version substituted a floor lamp.
What I’ll say is rather besides the point of this post, but whether or not you, my unseen reader, thinks this makes me the odd man out, I don’t think that it was coincidental that I happened to discover this passage in this particular book at this particular time. I can’t explain it, but it’s not coincidental. It was intentional. Purposeful. Meaningful. Deliberate. Thoughtful. And the thought wasn’t mine. It belongs to the One who is all knowing, all seeing, all wise.
But back to the main point, dear reader: Re-read, and then overlay, L. J. Martin’s words as recorded on the morning of June 2nd, 1921, in the newspaper article entitled An Official Collapse, with Harper Lee’s words, written sometime before publishing the book in 1960.
Here’s another interesting fact: Lee’s original title for the book was Go Set a Watchman. (Later on, Lee writes another book involving many of the same characters as Mockingbird, which I haven’t yet read, and does use that title.)
But here’s where the phrase “go set a watchman” originated:
From the ancient book of Isaiah the prophet, chapter 21, verses 6 through 8:
“For thus the Lord said to me:
‘Go, set a watchman;
let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently,
Then he who saw cried out:
‘Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed
whole nights…’ “
In other words, as the original title relates to the book, the very scene where Atticus watches over Tom Robinson by night is the crux. It’s the metaphor, the point Harper Lee wanted to convey to the reader. Her desire. Her prayer, I imagine.
That we all would increasingly watch over each other. “Keep” each other, to borrow a phrase from an even older text than Isaiah’s. Protect each other. Look out for each other. Regard each other. Think more highly of others than we do ourselves. Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
That’s why much more repair is needed, in my humble opinion. Some sort of remediation. Some attempt to make things right – and I know there have been and are ongoing initiatives to do so, but again, in my humble opinion, they fall far short of the substantive repair that is warranted for the wanton destruction that the Tulsa Race Massacre inflicted.
I know I’m stepping on toes here. I know my words might mean unintended negative consequences for me.
So be it.
Because I’m not asking others to pay something I myself am not willing to pay.
And yes, it’s oh, so easy for me to sit on my high horse, securely typing away on my living room couch, with Harper Lee Tirado, our seven week old Yellow Lab, snuggled peacefully along my left side, and admonish. But please hear me when I say, again, that I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to the place where I now sit. Where I now stand. Had I not been, I would have remained mute, on the sidelines.
I see me there
And I know that I know that I know that had I been alive
And in Tulsa
And in the large crowd of onlookers at the jail
Where they were keeping Dick Rowland, the accused
At the least, the very least
I would have remained silent
I would have stood meekly by
And perhaps I would have joined in with those clamoring for arms
I would have joined in with the crowd battering in the doors of the Magee sporting goods store
And would have entered the store
And would have picked up a gun, loaded it, and, with adrenaline pumping
Would have turned, with the others, and headed for Greenwood
Cheering, and shouting, along with the others:
”Now let the niggers come if they dare”
I see me there
I’ll close with two interesting discoveries. Two very different watchmen.
The first was Tulsa founder and Ku Klux Klan member W. Tate Brady. According to the Morning Tulsa Daily World, June 1, 1921, Brady participated in the riot (later renamed massacre) as, of all things, a night watchman:
“Tate Brady, proprietor of the Brady hotel, who was a member of white men on guard duty along North Main street all night, said he counted the bodies of five negroes. One negro was dragged behind an automobile, with a rope about his neck, throughout the business district.”
(Brady went on to pay $200,000 for the construction of a large Klan temple, or “Klavern”, that could seat 3,000 members. Beno Hall, as it was known, was located at 503 N. Main Street. According to Tulsa County land records, the parcel of land was owned by Rachel Brady, Brady’s wife. Locals jokingly called it “Be No Hall,” short, it was said, for “Be No Nigger, Be No Jew, Be No Catholic, Be No Immigrant.” It was not quite large enough to house the estimated 3,200 members of the Tulsa Klan in December 1921 – perhaps as many as six thousand white Tulsans, at one time or another, became members of the Klan, including several prominent local leaders.
However, in what might be called an about face, during a 1923 military tribunal, Brady stated that he, like his father before him, had been a member of the Klan but he had quit the Klan because he was a Democrat and would not be told how to vote. Brady supported the anti-Klan gubernatorial candidate Jack Walton, who “engaged in an out-and-out war with the Ku Klux Klan.” So there. People are complicated.)
Complicated singly, complicated in groups. Blacks, not just whites, formed lynch mobs. Witness the following excerpt from the same newspaper, on the same date. Another mob, another watchman:
Yes, I see myself hiding in the crowd, hiding behind masks. But I also reimagine myself shining shoes, pleading earnestly for the life of another human being, throwing my arms around them, protecting them, pleading for them. I see myself a white policeman, admonishing a white crowd. Speaking truth.
Let’s all so shine!