Oklahoma Contemporary has established itself as presenting interesting, diverse and moving exhibitions for the community to experience at no cost. Opening this month, its newest exhibition, Descendants of the Black 1000: Flight from Oklahoma Black Towns to Canada, will offer visitors another perspective of Oklahoma history — one from more than 1,000 miles north.
Featured artists Donna Paris and David Ofori Zapparoli capture the history and culture of Black Canadians. Paris, who produced a series of interviews about the journeys of Black Canadians, noticed a trend: Many of the interviewees had ancestors who originally hailed from Oklahoma. Descendants of the Black 1000 tells the story of 12 of these individuals through photographs by Zapparoli. Each photo has an accompanying audio story, produced by Paris, which features the subjects themselves.
Oklahoma, like most states, has a complex history with Black Americans. Prior to statehood, many Black Americans settled in the territory for the ability to own land, vote and hold elected positions. However, when Oklahoma joined the United States in 1907, the legislature passed Senate Bill One, the new state’s first of several Jim Crow laws. In response to rising discrimination, more than 1,000 Black Oklahomans migrated to Canada between 1908 to 1911, in a movement dubbed the Black 1000.
This process of moving north wasn’t easy. Black Oklahomans had to sell everything they owned and were subjected to other racist opposition as they reached the Canadian border, including extensive medical examinations in an attempt to keep them from immigrating. Through oral histories and striking present-day portraits, the exhibition illuminates their resilience, courage and determination to thrive in a new environment.
Descendants of the Black 1000 tells of both the journey of these ancestors and the strength of the communities they built. Guest curator Gay Pasley, a writer and photographer who won the 2023 Everett Southwest Literary Award, has been collecting additional archival material and photographs to recount these stories from beginning to end. “What I loved about this story is that deciding to leave was in itself an act of resistance,” Pasley said. “Oftentimes, they weren’t going as individuals but as multiple family units, and they remain connected. There are family reunions that are still held with the Canadian and Oklahoman families. The transnational connection that was established and continues on is such a beautiful thing.”
Descendants of the Black 1000: Flight from Oklahoma Black Towns to Canada opens Nov. 9 and runs through April 1. Special programming will occur during the exhibition’s run. Visit oklahomacontemporary.org to learn more.
Did you know? Oklahoma Contemporary is also home to the Te Ata Theater, which hosts performances from the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre. Catch Looking for Tiger Lily, written and performed by Anthony Hudson, Nov. 16-18.
“Looking for Tiger Lily is an hour-long solo performance using song, drag, humor and the 1960 production of Peter Pan to explore what it was like growing up as a queer mixed Native person,” said artistic director Kelly Kerwin. For tickets, visit okcrep.org.