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Forgotten Tulsa

Zarrow Center exhibit puts a lens on the past

Tulsa’s past comes to life at the new Forgotten Tulsa exhibit at the Henry Zarrow Center for Arts and Education.


A two-part photography exhibit at the Henry Zarrow Center for Arts and Education explores what Tulsa looked like throughout the decades, from downtown’s skyline to demolished buildings long forgotten—along with the dark side of our history.

Most of the photos in the opening section of Forgotten Tulsa were shot prior to 1950. They include Tulsa sites and landmarks that have been “demolished, abandoned or forgotten,” said Sean Latham, director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at the University of Tulsa, which created the exhibit along with TU’s Department of Special Collections at McFarlin Library.

Some photos depict a young and prospering Tulsa with its ornate architecture, luxurious bank lobbies and downtown department stores crowded with shoppers dressed in their Sunday best. Others, shot before the turn of the 20th century, show weather-beaten wooden churches and school buildings devoid of landscaping, which eventually gave way to skyscrapers and parking lots.

An 1889 photo shows Tulsa’s first two-story building, an art deco structure that housed a general merchandise store. One of Latham’s favorites is a 1945 downtown skyline photo shot by longtime Tulsa photographer Bob McCormack.

The second half of the show comes with a parental warning. It’s also important to remember Tulsa’s violent history, Latham says as he leads the way past the sign cautioning visitors that the photos in the next room might be too intense for children.

That’s where one finds photos of the Ku Klux Klan, which in 1924 had a membership of 10,000 in Tulsa, including a women’s auxiliary and a branch for children, said Marc Carlson, head of special collections and university archives at the McFarlin Library, in a telephone interview.

“My section of the exhibit was the stuff in the darkened room dealing with the things that Tulsa wanted to forget,” Carlson said. “The Knights of Liberty mob material is critical for understanding that period. The more I studied World War I-era events, the more it became apparent that certain things were going to occur.”

The Knights of Liberty was a vigilante group that, in 1917, rounded up labor union recruiters with the Industrial Workers of the World who had come to eastern Oklahoma to try to unionize oilfields, Carlson said.

“They stripped, tarred and feathered and bullwhipped them,” Carlson said.

Also depicted in the exhibit is the county-level division of the Council of National Defense, also known as the Home Guard, a citizen militia that operated during World War I.

“They could do whatever they wanted to keep the war effort going,” Carlson said. “They were armed men who could break up strikes in the oilfield. They rounded up prostitutes and their clients and had them tested for venereal disease.”

Those who were infected were held at a detention center for treatment, Carlson said. The men who tested clean were sent home, but the women were shipped off to do involuntary labor at munitions factories.

The Home Guard conducted “slacker raids” of men ages 18 to 35 who were not in uniform or carrying evidence they had registered for the draft.

“During one of the major slacker raids, they forcibly shipped them off to the war,” Carlson said. “There’s a lot of stuff that people in Tulsa don’t want to know about.”

Former members of the Home Guard have been described as being the core of the special deputies during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Carlson said. “They were used to having that kind of authority.”

Burned bodies are evident in some of the Race Massacre photos in the exhibit. The McFarlin Library owns the only copies of two of the photos. Other disturbing pictures of the massacre were more widely distributed, Carlson said, because when people took their film to be processed, “developers kept the negatives and made postcards out of [them].”

A photo from September 1918 shows a Confederate veterans encampment held in Tulsa and attended by 70,000 veterans and their families and supporters. While violence was not necessarily associated with the encampments, gatherings of that size must have been intimidating for Tulsa’s African American residents, Latham said.

A 1928 membership roster of the KKK hangs in the exhibit and identifies members by occupation. Listed are school board members, police officers, a U.S. Marshal, firefighters and the Tulsa mayor.

There’s not much racial diversity depicted in the street scenes in the first half of the exhibit. But there are a few photos of prosperous young African Americans, which Carlson said are from a scrapbook kept by a Greenwood District family beginning in 1922.

The Center for the Humanities uses the tools of arts and the humanities to serve as a bridge between TU and the community, Latham said. They create about 10 exhibits every year that open at the Zarrow Center on First Fridays. This exhibit continues through June 26 at 124 E. M.B. Brady St., and then it will move in a smaller format to the TU campus for six months, Latham said. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and admission is free.