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Black Wall Street comes alive in new play

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Following the Civil War, African-Americans began to establish all-black townships in the Indian and Oklahoma Territories. One of those townships was Greenwood — located north of the tracks in Tulsa. Created in 1906 by O.W. Gurley, one of Tulsa's earliest pioneers, and other black entrepreneurs who invested in property, Greenwood over time became a self-sufficient community. Residents sought true emancipation from a system that excluded them from success when it couldn't outright exploit them.

This bit of repressed American history will be explored onstage next week at MuCCC. Deborah Solomon's new play, "Emancipation Denied: The Story of Black Wall Street," presents the history of the rise and destruction of the successful black-owned community of Greenwood, Oklahoma. The play's world premiere will be performed by the North Star Players under the direction of David Shakes.

In Solomon's play, historic figures encounter violent pushback from those who sought to maintain the way America operates. As with so many other instances of racial violence, trouble was sparked by the accusation that a black boy was inappropriate toward a white girl. Understandably fearful that the young man's fate was in the hands of mob justice, Greenwood residents gathered at the lockup. A shot was fired by an unknown source, chaos ensued, and white mobs burned Greenwood to the ground.

Shakes says the play opens in a classroom setting, in which a teacher begins to dispel the myth that "black people don't invest." The audience actually becomes an extension of the classroom. "A lot of people don't know about this; it's not taught," Shakes says. "You have to search it out, and pass along that information."

The bulk of the story takes place after a shift into a dream sequence, which contains an historic reenactment of the rise and destruction of Greenwood. Because of its economic success and growing entrepreneurial opportunities, the Greenwood community was dubbed "Black Wall Street" by Booker T. Washington. "Emancipation Denied" immerses viewers into the individual lives of those who developed an economic powerhouse in Greenwood, which included more than 600 businesses.

Greenwood residents watched as all they had worked for was razed to the ground. And to preclude any ideas of fighting back against the white terrorism, law enforcement dropped firebombs on buildings, residences, and fleeing children, women, and men.

What happened in Greenwood wasn't unique, Shakes says. There were up to 50 independent black towns by 1920, he says, and the Florida community of Rosewood is another successful hub that bore the wrath of white anger at black success.

There are more recent parallels between the foiling of Greenwood and other black communities: the 1985 bombing of the M.O.V.E. community in Philadelphia mirrors law enforcement dropping bombs on African-American residences. And fear of black success arguably resulted in the re-zoning of Rochester's Clarissa Street neighborhood following the 1964 riots. That area had been an important cultural hub for black Rochesterians, with black-owned businesses and clubs, such as Pythodd Club, which hosted national jazz and blues acts.

Shakes remembers the area's heyday. When his family moved to the Browncroft neighborhood from Brooklyn, he was 17 going on 18. "My father said, 'You're far away from African-American community, but if I'm not home and you want to listen to music, take the #4 or the #8 bus to Clarissa Street,'" Shakes says. "So I would go to the Pythodd, and next door was Snuffy's Birdland, and a place where you could get your hair cut. There was a shoe repair, places to get breakfast ... the re-zoning seemed like cultural aggression, to crush that area like that."

The play strikes a number of different chords that have resonance regarding our current political and social climates, Shakes says. "We need some healing, we need some kind of growth and understanding of one another."

Art has the potential to play a major role in facilitating this healing, Shakes says. "It can be an opening to researching and valuing things of the past as we move forward. It can help in our grounding, in discovering our roots. Hopefully this play will pique the interest in people to look into the rich history of the nation, and spread some optimism: some hope and some strength and some resilience within ourselves."

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