When the Tulsa Drillers open their 2021 season, fans will be treated to a dazzling new sight: a massive, vividly-rendered mural of Jackie Robinson beyond the outfield wall. The Drillers are a Dodgers affiliate, which makes Robinson a natural fit for such an honor. But the significance of this large-scale work of public art, like Jackie himself, goes well beyond baseball.
The Drillers’ home of ONEOK Field is located in North Tulsa’s Greenwood District. This historic neighborhood rose to prominence in the early 20th century as America’s “Black Wall Street,” a sobriquet bestowed upon the area by Booker T. Washington. On May 31 and into June 1, 1921, this thriving neighborhood — home to over 10,000 residents — was decimated by what is now referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre. A violent white mob, inflamed by specious allegations regarding a May 30 encounter in downtown Tulsa between a Black man and a white woman, looted the neighborhood and burned it to the ground. Thirty-five square blocks, comprising over 600 successful Black-owned businesses, were decimated.
The damage that resulted from this racist terror spree was incalculable. Over 800 people were treated for their injuries, and as many as 300 lost their lives (the search for victims’ remains continues to this day). The Tulsa Race Massacre was perhaps the worst single instance of race-related violence in American history, and its reverberations continue to be felt. The Drillers’ Jackie Robinson mural, completed last month, is one comparatively small aspect of a city-wide campaign to commemorate the event.
“The city formed a Race Massacre Centennial Committee,” said Mike Melaga, Drillers president and general manager. “This was history that was excluded from the history books. A lot of people who grew up here never learned about it, but in the last five to 10 years especially there’s been a lot more recognition about how horrible it was.”
The Drillers are set to host ballpark events related to the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial. The Double-A team’s season kicks off at ONEOK Field on May 4, the first of 12 home games in which their uniforms will feature commemorative patches. These patches feature the word “riot” crossed out, with “massacre” in its place. This is in line with a recent emphasis on re-contextualizing the event as such.
“It was the perfect place for a mural that looked inside the stadium,” said Melaga. “As we approach the Centennial, and with our relationship with the Dodgers being extended [through the 2030 season], we approached [Greenwood Chamber president] Dr. Freeman Culver and pitched the idea. He was super-supportive. … Jackie was a perfect tie-in because of his importance socially and to the game of baseball and then, again, our relationship to the Dodgers.”
The Jackie Robinson mural is accessible to the public at all times, and lit up at night. Dr. Culver said that it has become an immediate neighborhood attraction; his hope is that visitors use it as a springboard to learn about the neighborhood and, in particular, support the “Deep Greenwood” businesses that carry on the neighborhood’s legacy. The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce has launched a GoFundMe campaign connected with these goals, with most of the funding aimed toward preserving the 10 surviving original Black Wall Street buildings.
“Not to always make things political, but W.E.B. DuBois once said that all art is propaganda,” said Dr. Culver. “Well, if that’s the case, then this is good propaganda that the Tulsa community needed to come together. This being the centennial of the darkest chapter in Oklahoma history, and possibly American history. This massacre happened in the heart of Greenwood proper, so to be able to put an emblem of togetherness and change and promoting civil and human rights with this Jackie Robinson mural, I’m glad we could be a part of it and house it in the Greenwood Chamber West Building.
“We want to encourage people to come down to see the last Black Wall Street buildings,” he continued. “We have 30 businesses in these buildings. Twenty-eight are owned by African-Americans. … 85 percent of them are owned by African-American women. We want people to go out of their way to support these businesses. The pandemic hit these businesses pretty hard. They need love down there. We have restaurants, souvenir shops, insurance agencies, a jewelry store, a gym, a tattoo parlor, educational exhibits. And the welcome center is free for everyone. We have a lot going on.”
To bring the Jackie Robinson mural to life, the Drillers turned to Tulsa-born artist and creative consultant Chris “Sker” Rogers. Sker has created or overseen myriad public artworks throughout Tulsa, including several in the Greenwood District. Perhaps most notably, he served as project manager for the neighborhood’s Black Wall Street mural.
When it came to the Jackie Robinson mural, Sker had both a creative and managerial role. He procured all the art supplies, as well as the heavy-duty industrial equipment needed to bring the work to completion.
“The goal of a large-scale project is to turn the concept into a plan and then organize the plan with a bunch of different moving parts and different players,” he said. “It’s a process, so looking at the size of the wall and the importance of the subject matter, early on in the conversation I knew I’d be bringing in another artist.”
That artist was Denver-based Thomas “Detour” Evans. He and Sker have a history of collaboration, including the tribute to local musicians that is the Tulsa Sound Mural.
“I go for a multi-colored abstract sort of feel,” said Detour. “That’s mainly because there are a lot of muted colors in buildings and architecture, streets and public spaces. So when you add yellows, teals, reds, pinks, it really pops off the wall and separates itself from the surroundings. That’s why I love using color. I’ve done a series of murals in that way. It’s something that has helped me grow as an artist and to have my work recognized. It’s more figurative, a lot of the work I do, and colorful. It’s made to stand out.”
That aesthetic is evident in the Jackie Robinson mural, which Sker and Detour completed in the span of just three days (albeit after months of planning). Both men were thrilled with the final product.
“For me street art is about, in part, enjoying the aesthetic,” said Detour, whose next goal is to partner with his hometown Colorado Rockies on a ballpark mural. “But a lot of it is tied to education and the community. It’s about showing something that you want people to know more about. Here, that was Jackie Robinson but also what happened in Greenwood and Black Wall Street.”
“The idea of two Black artists painting an iconic Black figure in the historic Greenwood District in 2021, the importance of it is not lost on me,” said Sker. “There were times I was up there painting on the wall and had to take a second to soak it all in. It was a great feeling and a great opportunity, to be a part of this in this capacity.”