The holidays tend to ground us, don't they? Every year around this time, I start reflecting on where I've come from, and where I am now. There's an undeniable sense of history in the air. Ghosts of past, present, and future seem to haunt our chilly bones.
Nodding to nature's cue to look back, I recently took a visit to the Tulsa Historical Society, eager to remind myself of our city's strides and setbacks.
It was the perfect fix. The Historical Society is chock full of breathtaking memorabilia, photos, artwork, and education.
I spent most of my time there between two exhibits: "Redefining Tulsa: Challenge, Courage, and Change in the 1940s" and artist Eric Humphries' paintings of the 1921 Race Riots, a series entitled, "Is the Whole World on Fire?"
"Redefining Tulsa" is a majestic exhibit, carefully curated to convey the spirit of hope our city embodied in the 1940s. Walking in, I was met by towering black and white photos of Tulsa's downtown. The first put me on top of the Wright Building, providing an aerial view of Boulder and Cheyenne, and sending my stare to the tops of buildings all around me. The second placed me on Boston Avenue, with scurrying Tulsans on the sidewalk, and big black cars bumbling along the street. The last photo depicted downtown from the sky.
"A new decade dawned in Tulsa on Jan. 1, 1940," the sign tells me, and it's no wonder. Coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II, Tulsa was changing rapidly. Men were off fighting, women were working, and Tulsa was losing its grip as the "oil capital of the world."
Moving through the exhibit, photos of Oklahoma life in the '40s greet me at every turn. At the University of Tulsa, sorority girls wash windows, sip from glass Coke bottles, and listen to records. In a factory, a woman assembles a plane for war. Wet and cold, victims of the 1943 flood huddle together by the boatloads. Families downtown bustle through amusement parks, shops, movie theaters and restaurants.
At the premiere of the 1949 feature film "Tulsa," star Susan Hayward arrives in a convertible. She's dressed in the most bedazzled and soft-looking gown I've ever seen. Nearby, the movie poster boasts of the "lusty, brawling saga of a city of adventure!"
Handmade dancing costumes, barely-faded army uniforms, and beautiful wedding gowns are also on display. A skirted suit sits above a caption that reads: "WAVES uniform -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service."
Radios, ration stamps, Lone Ranger toys and a 1946 Ford pickup truck add a superb sense of reality to the exhibit. These photos and articles represent the lives of real Tulsans who were here long before me. Proud Oklahomans vying for success and adventure in an unsteady world, just like me.
While the Historical Society is an impressive spectacle -- a massive and beautiful building housing more than just hints of historical pride -- there are dark corners as well.
"Is the Whole World on Fire?" depicts a dark day in Tulsa's history: the 1921 Race Riot. Artist Eric Humphries' eight paintings walk the viewer through the Greenwood riot moment by moment.
Humphries' paintings are bright, colorful and incredibly stylized. He employs thick black outlines for his shapes, providing an almost cartoony look. The comic book shapes offer a starkly ironic contrast between look and feel: while the method appears innocent and fun, the message is not.
In fact, nearly all of the eight paintings are chilling at best. Humphries tells the story one page at a time -- from the accusations that started the riot, to the battle at Mt. Zion Church, to undeserved arrests, to selfish looting, and so on.
A particularly horrifying snapshot is the depiction of a Ku Klux Klan march that followed the Race Riot. Humphries' caption reminds us that there were 3,200 KKK members in Tulsa at the time, not including the rare women's chapter, or the rarer "junior chapter," for boys 8 to 12 years old.
A happy sigh of relief, the final canvas of the series is uplifting. Humphries shows us a picture of current peace in the Greenwood area -- the people depicted not black or white, but a calm, light shade of blue.
On the other side of the Zarrow Foundation Gallery, a second series by Eric Humphries shares his take on the Oklahoma City Bombing, entitled, ":03 Minutes in American History."
"Redefining Tulsa" is open through Dec. 4, while "Is the Whole World on Fire?" is open through Jan. 29. The Tulsa Historical Society, 2445 S. Peoria Avenue, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-4pm. Admission is free.
The Historical Society has several other exhibits open to the public. "Big Adventure," a children's exhibit helping children think through challenges and games, runs through May 28. "Play Ball: A History of Baseball in Tulsa," recounts Tulsa's enthusiasm for America's favorite pastime and runs through March 5.
"Work, Health & Love: 100 Years of Camp Fire," shows through Dec. 24, and depicts the first girls organization of its kind, the Centennial of Camp Fire USA. "Zebco: Changing the Face of Fishing," reflects on a Tulsa-based company that invented a new kind of fishing reel, open through Aug. 28.
Playhouse Theatre Tulsa will be performing "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Dec. 9-12 at Tulsa PAC. Tulsa PAC will also show "The Nutcracker," Dec. 11-23, as well as the American Theatre Company's performance of "A Christmas Carol" Dec. 9-23. For tickets and details, visit tulsapac.com.
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