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Artist Paul Rucker is fearless when it comes to facing terrible moments in American history.
“The work I do mostly revolves around things that I have never learned,” says Rucker. On Zoom, he discusses his work in progress, Three Black Wall Streets, which evokes and honors the achievements of black entrepreneurs and visionaries who created flourishing spaces of possibility and a sanctuary after the end of the Civil War.
One of them, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was destroyed by a white mob 100 years ago on May 31, 1921. The catastrophic attack on what was known as Black Wall Street could be the worst episode of racial violence in American history, with 35 blocks of the black community destroyed and flattened.
“Ten thousand blacks were left homeless,” says Rucker. “Churches have been set on fire. Schools. Libraries. Theaters. Everything in the black community.”
The Greenwood area of Tulsa was a thriving commercial and residential area before the Tulsa Race Massacre, as it is now called. The destruction of black wealth and property – by arson, firebombs, even dynamite dropped from planes – lasted two days. The atrocity has not been mentioned or has been underestimated in the state’s official history for decades. Police records, newspaper articles and other evidence from the time have disappeared from the archives. It wasn’t until last year that the story became part of the Oklahoma schools curriculum – after the HBO show Guardian helped bring it to popular consciousness in 2019.
Its first episode begins with a shocking – and precise – description of the chaos. “A lot of people were giving Guardian a lot of credit for bringing attention to Black Wall Street, “Rucker says.” Well, people in the black community have been talking about it for years. “
Rucker’s multimedia work addresses mass incarceration, lynching, police brutality, and the various insidious ways America is shaped by our legacy of slavery. His 2018 TED talk, on Appropriating the Symbols of Systemic Racism, has nearly two million views.
A world power of art, Paul Rucker, who recently turned 53, can count seven museum exhibitions this year. His resume reads like a list of prestigious grants and scholarships, and he was the first artist in residence at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. But before all the recognition and awards, Rucker worked as a janitor at the Seattle Art Museum. He used leftover art supplies to fulfill his vision, as he couldn’t afford new ones. Born in Anderson, SC, Rucker’s father was a construction worker, born in 1905.
Ryan Stevenson / Paul Rucker
“He was 63 when I was born,” Rucker says. “He grew up during the height of the lynching, so he was there during Black Wall Street. He didn’t tell me about the bad things that happened to him. But he had to be careful. He had to be careful what in the direction he looked in. There were people around the time he was born who were lynched because they knocked on the wrong door.
Paul Rucker remembers seeing Klan gatherings when he was little. As a young teenager, he would sit in the street and eat ice cream while watching a Klan parade pass by. About seven years ago, Rucker started sewing Klan dresses himself. “I use kente fabric. I use camouflage,” he explained in his TED talk. The material also represents the way in which racism is camouflaged. “We have separate schools, neighborhoods, workplaces. And it’s not the people who wear hoods that keep these policies in place. My work is about the long-term impact of slavery. stealth aspect of racism is part of its power. Racism has the power to hide. And when it hides, it is kept safe because it blends in.
With his Tulsa project, initially called Bank in black, Rucker had initially planned to build a facility using the bowels of an old bank. But COVID-19 has changed everything. Now the project is virtual, with three universities involved: George Washington University, Virginia Commonwealth University (where Rucker recently lectured on the project) and Arizona State University, which is planning some sort of physical exhibition with the project this fall.
“Paul asks us to testify, for sure,” says Miki Garcia, director of the ASU Art Museum. Her school is teaming up with Rucker, she says, in all kinds of ways this year, including a huge group project called Undoing Time: The Art and Stories of Incarceration. “There are stories that surface that have been intentionally, I believe, obscured. So whether it is the story of the mass incarceration or the dresses of the Klan or the massacre of the Tulsa race, he makes the story viscerally present. “
In this project, the story focuses on three Black Wall Streets: in Tulsa, Durham, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. A website, designed with the help of students and Professor Kevin Patton of GWU’s Corcoran School of Art and Design, will immerse visitors in these communities at their zenith.
“We are not including any of these destruction images on this website,” Rucker said. “Zero.”
While some black communities, like those in Tulsa and Rosewood, Florida, were savagely destroyed by mobs in the early 1920s, Rucker points to another type of economic violence that destroyed thriving black business districts across the county. Mid-century urban renewal programs prioritized highways over black communities. They tore up black neighborhoods and separated them, in cities from Syracuse to Miami to Indianapolis, Houston and Oakland.
“A lot of my work is about violence,” Rucker says. “I mean, I have more work on the dead than anybody I know. It tires me out, but I have to tell these stories because they need to be told. [But] this may be my last project around race and atrocities. ”
The legacy of these economic atrocities, Rucker says, includes the reduction in black wealth, the coordinated exclusion of blacks from boards and leadership positions, and representation in classrooms. Over the past year, Rucker acted as a mentor for a group of students called BASE – Black Art Student Empowerment at Virginia Commonwealth University, and worked with them to develop a database of businesses owned by Blacks to be included in the final draft. “
“It is important that we have raised ourselves in this culture and this heritage that has been left behind,” said Shayne Herrera, group president. A senior VCU, he focuses on painting and printmaking. Too often he’s the only African American in the room. “Paul has met with us every week during the pandemic to make sure that we can create that space of, you know, black creativity and safety.”
Ultimately, Rucker wants to get the audience to understand a complicated and cruel story in order to move forward with compassion. Three Black Wall Streets, he says, isn’t just about something that happened 100 years ago. It is the ashes of destruction that are still smoldering.
“[Three Black Wall Streets] is also a question of student loans, ”says the artist, and real estate ownership. People ask Rucker all the time about his Klan robes, he adds, admiring his “radical” artwork. “But the most drastic thing I have done as a black man – as an artist – is to buy property.”
Rucker owns a home near the VCU campus and what was once Richmond, Black Wall Street, Va., A place where the first black woman became bank president, in the early 1900s. Today, Rucker is one. of the few black owners in the region. When the country’s Black Wall Streets were ravaged and ruined, he says, we found ourselves in moral and spiritual bankruptcy.