How Tulsa Revived Through Fashion and Culture 100 Years After Race Riots

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This weekend marks 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, considered to be one of the most violent incidents in American history.

Tulsa, Okla., home of the Greenwood District, which was then one of the U.S.’ predominantly Black and thriving cities in the country, was ravaged by mobs of white residents over Memorial Day Weekend in 1921. What began with the arrest of Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black male, on May 30 after an encounter in an elevator with Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, erupted with mobs at odds over Rowland’s arrest and expected lynching, and later rioting, looting, an a declaration of martial law by then Governor James B. A. Robertson.

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The HBO series “Watchmen” based on the 1980s graphic novel by Alan Moore depicted the riots in detail, including bombs being dropped on the city via airplanes. After the riots, 35 city blocks were destroyed, 800 people were treated for injuries and 300 people are believed to have died due to the riots.

But with a dark and sordid history, Greenwood has been rebuilt like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and doesn’t shy away from the destruction. This weekend, Brandon Oldham of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, De’Ara Balenger, Stacie Gillian and Jordan Vaughn of creative strategy firm Maestra curated a weekend of events in Greenwood to celebrate the district’s history and its modern culture.

A few events include the Boley Rodeo, an annual rodeo event in Boley, Okla., that dates back to 1903 and is headed by one the oldest Black communities in the U.S.; a tour of the city’s botanical garden, and a shopping scavenger hunt.

“This massacre affected all of us,” said Oldham. “There were things destroyed that can’t be restored again, and how do you think of this as a Tulsan?”

Oldham grew up in Tulsa and left the city to study at the University of Oklahoma before returning to Tulsa to continue his career. He’s currently the program officer for the George Kaiser Family Foundation but previously served as an aide to the mayor of Tulsa. When Oldham returned to Tulsa, he thought of how the city can bring its many subcultures together and introducing an event called Frequency where the city’s artists can assemble and share their experiences and talents.

Though many don’t consider Tulsa a fashion city, Oldham spoke of the store Tops & Bottoms that he would visit in his younger years and Promenade Mall where he would shop for urbanwear, sportswear and sneakers, but people such as Kanye West helped Oldham and his peers embrace the pink polo shirts they wore prior to West hitting the scene. Russell Westbrook, formerly of the Oklahoma City Thunder, pushed the envelope for his tunnel style and influenced Oldham to embrace his risks like wearing sneakers with suits, which he said he wore to three proms in high school and was denied entry for.

“I was in Oklahoma City when Westbrook was making an imprint,” Oldham said. “He was so bold about it. Being at University of Oklahoma and pushing the envelope as much as I can, I couldn’t do it like how Russ would do it in his authenticity.”

Every city has a unique street style and fashion community. Oldham mentioned brand Lord Primo, a contemporary offering merging streetwear and elevated design led by Johnthan Stanton; men’s tailoring shop Threads on Boston, and Venita Cooper’s sneaker store Silhouette Sneakers & Art as a few of the talents and brands that represent Tulsan style.

“Our fashion is here,” he said. “We always wanted to dress like this, but you were fortunate to go to these avenues where you can experience higher fashion and culture and I thought how can we do this? If it’s my role here to bring subcultures together, I learned the bug is already here.”

He continued, “With this centennial, I’m excited about how everything collides and I use that word intentionally, because it’s a collision of past trauma and an immersion of Tulsa informing the country that this is what happened and we don’t want it to happen again.”

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