It’s an essential question that artist and educator Dr. Leslee Howes Stradford poses when speaking about her work: “If you’ve been lied to about your history, or it’s never been taught at all, how are you supposed to know it?”
That is the underlying premise that informs one project in particular that she started working on more than a decade ago.
“The Night Tulsa Died: The Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921” is a series of digital collages, on silk, that tell the story of the Tulsa Massacre, the 100th anniversary of which falls on May 30.
Over the course of less than 24 hours, the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa — known as Black Wall Street because it was home to prosperous Black entrepreneurs, businessmen, and their families — was completely destroyed by racially motivated violence. Hundreds of people were killed, and the homes of the more than 10,000 Black residents were bombed or burned to the ground.
The violence was sparked by a false rumor that a Black man made an advance toward a white woman, and it led to a racist mob of white protesters carrying out unfathomable violence.
The tragedy was compounded when government officials and other agencies wrongfully accused Black residents of rioting — which meant insurance companies were off the hook for covering rebuilding costs, and many merchants refused to sell bricks and other supplies, making it all but impossible to start over.
For the better part of the last century, the story of the massacre was actively covered up and largely erased from the history books. But in more recent years, there has been an effort to shine a light on one of the darkest moments in the history of a country that is still in the thick of grappling with racism and hate.
Dr. Stradford has been in residence at The Church in Sag Harbor since the end of April, and will be there until June 1, with some of her newer work on display. Dr. Stradford is scheduled to speak to a limited audience at The Church on Sunday, May 30, at 4 p.m. Others wishing to be part of that experience can join a webinar — information is available at sagharborchurch.org.
Prior to that talk and webinar, Dr. Stradford’s “The Night Tulsa Died” collection will be on display at Keyes Art gallery at 45 Main Street in Sag Harbor in a show that opens on May 27 from 3 to 6 p.m. The collection will remain there through May 31.
Dr. Stradford is, in many ways, the perfect person to take on an artistic telling of the Tulsa Massacre, and not only because of her many years of experience as an artist and educator. She is a direct descendant of survivors of the massacre.
Her great-grandfather John Baptiste Stradford, who owned and operated the thriving Stradford Hotel in the heart of Greenwood, was wrongfully accused of starting the riots, and was not exonerated until 1997, after his death, and only thanks to the hard work of his granddaughter Jewel Stradford LaFontant, who became an attorney and spent years advocating on his behalf.
He and his family ultimately relocated to Chicago, unable to rebuild after the massacre. Dr. Stradford stated bluntly what would have happened if the family had tried to stay and rebuild: “They would have lynched him.”
Exploring that part of her family’s history through art — in this instance, with various digital collages printed on 3-foot-by-6-foot silk panels — was almost predestined, she said.
“You want to tell a story in images that people will understand if there are no words,” she said. “Being a visual artist and having taught for the better part of 50 years, I thought that would be a challenge that I needed to do.” She added that committing to the project wasn’t so much a deliberate decision, but, rather, “it sort of chose me.”
The panels are all anchored by black-and-white photographs, overlaid with bright colors and patterns, of Black families from that time and place, including many from Dr. Stradford’s own family.
She does not shy away from using strong, evocative images in the pieces — of a lynching, of a KKK mob — determined to tell the full truth of an event so tragic it’s hard to sum up in words.
“The stories were and are horrific,” Dr. Stradford said. “The hate is almost unspeakable, but that’s what has to change.”
One of the most powerful pieces in the collection, titled “When I was six,” centers on a photograph of Stradford’s sister, Laurel Stradford, as a small child. She is seated between her grandmother Ada Carter (known as “Mumzie”), on the left, and her aunt Jewel Stradford Lafontant on the right.
They are seated inside a simple artistic rendering of the outline of a house, overlaid with bright patterned colors, inspired by the quilts of Gee’s Bend, made by Black women in rural Alabama that have been recognized as famous works of African American art. A chicken, symbolic of motherly protection in many African cultures, sits at the peak of the roof, spreading its wings. But in the background there is another image: a 1925 photograph of a KKK mob, several hundred deep, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Dr. Stradford said the piece is meant to convey the reality that, for Black parents, protecting their children and the younger generations has not been about merely trying to shelter them from any and all harm. Dr. Stradford said her older relatives shared the story of what happened in Tulsa when she was very young.
“It’s the idea of being prepared,” she said. “I can remember the conversations, and my grandmother saying, ‘These girls need to know, they need to understand that this happened.’ Protection is about knowledge and truth.”
The kind of violence that befell the people of Greenwood in 1921 was extreme. Three survivors of the massacre who were small children when it happened testified recently on Capitol Hill, sharing their remembrances of being awakened in the middle of the night by their parents and told they had to run for their lives.
Many families were separated from their loved ones during the chaos, never to see them again. Another of Dr. Stradford’s pieces shows a woman sitting in a chair, all that was left of her home, which was burned to the ground, waiting and hoping that her family members would miraculously return.
The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the National Guard and other units that were called in to help quell the violence not only allowed it to continue but in some instances actively participated in it.
The racist hatred was fueled, Dr. Stradford said, by the fact that the Black residents in the segregated Greenwood neighborhood were living a well-heeled lifestyle in the midst of the Jim Crow era, becoming millionaire entrepreneurs and running thriving businesses like her great-grandfather’s hotel, which hosted jazz musicians and other major social events like proms, graduations and weddings.
“The community was thriving,” Dr. Stradford said. “These people were able to gain prominence just 60 years out of slavery. That’s less than someone’s lifetime. I’m sure that hit a nerve, having people who were formally owned having fine grand pianos and sending their children to college overseas.”
Reckoning with that painful history, especially in the current moment of renewed calls for racial justice, is as important as ever, according to Dr. Stradford, and she said she remains hopeful that people will continue to do that.
“It’s key for us to know what our history is, and to reevaluate what we see and what we’ve been told,” she said. “And that’s a hard one, because people believe what they want to believe. It takes a leap of courage, but it’s one that pays off, with great dividends.”
For more information on Dr. Leslee Howes Stradford and her work, visit leslee-stradford.com.