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Watching a connection over art, history

My alarm woke me at 2:30 a.m. from a catnap. My body was sleep-deprived, but my mind was pondering the exciting day ahead.

My father, mother and I were taking a trip to White Plains, N.Y., to present a painting my father had created to a pioneer, Dr. Olivia Hooker.

Hooker is a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race riot and the first African-American woman enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Several months ago, my father had been reading about Tulsa’s Greenwood District — commonly referred to as “Black Wall Street.” The affluent African-American community was self-sufficient, with its own doctors, lawyers, stores and restaurants.

However, an elevator encounter between Dick Rowland, a black man, and a white woman spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs in front of the town’s courthouse.

Outnumbered, the black mob retreated to the Greenwood District, and the white mob followed suit.

On the morning of June 1, 1921, the district was looted and vandalized by the white rioters. In the aftermath, more than 800 people were injured, and close to 300 were pronounced dead. In addition, more than 35 city blocks were ruined.

My father began a painting depicting the riots, not knowing one day he would present the photo to a survivor.

This was a huge moment for him, and I was very proud and blessed to be a part of it.

After miles upon miles of driving, we finally reached Hooker’s house. As we were removing the painting from the truck, I could see my father’s typically stoic temperament turn to that of a child the night before Christmas.

Inside, my dad explained his massive depiction of the Tulsa riot to Hooker, as she looked on in awe.
“This is amazing,” she said in a slightly raspy voice.

Afterwards, Dad suddenly became a journalist and asked Hooker a variety of questions about the riot and her life experiences. I was amazed by the centenarian’s articulate and detailed descriptions of what she had endured and learned over the years.

“Black people wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for the black press,” she said. “A lot of parents who were younger never spoke about it. You can’t keep something like that quiet.”

My father expressed his frustrations about the current state of African-American culture and families. He said as a people we seem lost, confused and tend to not care about our history.

Hooker agreed. She said she believes the crippled generation is due to a weakened connection to the church. In previous decades, the church was a staple in the black community.

Both agreed the church has not been able to foster the same connection in these communities in recent years.

The two could have gone on and on but eventually came to a close.

Before we left, my dad knelt before Hooker and took her hands and thanked God for having the opportunity to meet her.

That day will be etched in my memory for years to come. Those are the types of moments I will tell my kids and grandkids.

I’m proud of my father and wish nothing but continued success and more precious moments with his art like the one we experienced with Dr. Hooker.

If you would like to check out his art, visit timgilesafroartsandcrafts.com.