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Community responds to a rash of hateful vandalism



After a vandal defaced the Lynn Riggs Memorial mural, someone covered up the graffiti with a positive message.

Morgan Allen

Dozens gather outside the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center on July 28, sharing precious shade cast by the squat building as the relentless July sun slouches westward overhead. A pop-up tent and a microphone await voices eager to speak out against the hateful vandalism of the Lynn Riggs Memorial Mural on the south side of the black box theater bearing his name.

A vibrant spectrum of color fills the space behind a portrait of world-renowned poet and playwright Lynn Riggs, a Claremore native and gay man who died in 1954, gazing kindly on passersby through his round spectacles. Erratic slashes of black spray paint cover his mouth. The word abomination appears beside him, a slipshod job with halting letters varying between capital and lowercase.

With a repertoire of Broadway plays and screenplays for blockbuster films, Riggs isn’t primarily remembered as a poet even by many literary scholars. But the man behind Green Grow the Lilacs, the play that inspired Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, also wrote scores of beautiful poems.

Riggs’ poetry took center stage at the Equality Center event, as community members signed up for a round-robin reading of verse from his two poetry collections—The Iron Dish (1930) and the posthumous This Book, This Hill, These People (1982)—along with unpublished works from the writer’s archive.

“He’s a master sonneteer,” says Todd Fuller, curator of the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma and co-organizer of the reading. “This guy could’ve been in that pantheon of modernist poets.”

“When we saw this defamation, we were offended to our core that something like this could happen,” Fuller continues. 

“This act is an abomination against art and against Lynn and his memory, and we refused to let the metaphor over Lynn’s mouth take hold, so we speak for him today.”

Poet Quraysh Ali Lansana, one of a handful of Tulsa Artist Fellows in attendance, takes the mic. “Hate is lazy. Love is work,” he tells the crowd before launching into a powerful reading of Riggs’ “Wonder.” 

Some readers are poets like Lansana. Some are teachers, like education professor Crag Hill from the University of Oklahoma or playwright Bill McLoud from Rogers State University. Others are simply allies and bookworms from around town; one person introduces herself as simply “an angry grandmother.” 

The defacement of the Lynn Riggs mural is the second instance of minority-targeted vandalism in Tulsa since early July, when the words HOMEGROWN TERRORISM were sprayed across a billboard advertisement for Philbrook Museum’s Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place, the most comprehensive exhibit of Islamic art ever displayed in Oklahoma.  

“We stand united with our friends at the Equality Center against any forms of intolerance and hateful acts,” Philbrook Executive Director Scott Stulen said an email. 

On Twitter, the Museum’s official account responded swiftly: “Let us know how we can help with the mural!”

At the reading celebrating Riggs, speakers illustrate how our response to such public acts of hatred will shape the future of our city. “It’s important that we are here to support this center and [the] woke, conscious human beings who change the world,” Lansana tells the crowd. “Starting with our block. Starting with this block.”

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