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Date posted:  December 7, 2022

“The photograph,” Melanie Busch wrote in the Tulsa World in March 1992, “shows three black men leaning against a brick wall. Their young, solemn faces are silhouetted by muted sunshine.” But for Don Thompson–the man who took the photograph–this artwork was more than an image. It was a message: “The picture conveys an idea that because of drugs, gang affiliation and economics,” he explained, many “black youths have their backs against a wall.” Still, he insisted, “there is hope.”

Eddie Faye Gates agreed. In 2004, she and two other historians spoke on a panel at Tulsa City County Library’s African-American Resource Center. Ms. Gates told the audience about her vision for Tulsa’s future. “We’re right at a point where we need to become part of the whole, equality, justice–all of that,” she said, after addressing the same economic barriers Mr. Thompson identified. “And that’s what I hope we’re going to find in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Ms. Gates worked to topple these barriers throughout her life. That process began with her personal journey. She picked cotton as a teenager in Preston, Oklahoma in the 1940s. Then she attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Ralph Ellison–the Oklahoma writer whose famous novel, The Invisible Man, had just come out–visited her writing class in 1953. “I identified with Ellison,” Ms. Gates explained a half-century later. “We have the same background.”

For Ms. Gates, that background emphasized the importance of hard work–and the need to engage with the wider world. “My dad was a construction worker,” she reminisced. He “actually helped to dig the ditches…at Edison High School” in Tulsa. “He was so extremely proud when I taught at Edison High School. He told everybody, “I helped build that building where my daughter teaches.”

Ms. Gates spent 22 years there before accepting a new position as the Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Tulsa Public Schools. She approached the job as a global citizen. In July 1991, for example, she spent three weeks touring Poland and Israel to better understand the Holocaust. “I did not have the feel for it,” she explained, “I did not have the experience.” She had to visit the site of that atrocity to see it for herself. 

Experience was as central to Ms. Gates’ view of education as it was to Mr. Thompson’s ideas about art. He did not want people to passively stroll past his photographs, the way you might gaze at the countryside from a speeding car window. He wanted direct engagement–he wanted his images to influence people. “I don’t think one photograph can change things,” he told the Tulsa World in 1992, “but it can change people’s preconceived ideas about one thing. These things we hear about north Tulsa are not true. Not all of it is bad.”

Mr. Thompson fell into photography by accident. He did not grow up with, say, an uncle who taught him about camera lenses, exposure times, and the different chemicals used to develop images in a darkroom. Mr. Thompson was already a young man, serving with the U.S. military in Germany in the 1960s, when he suddenly found himself working for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. 

“We had a four-star general, a chief of staff, and I had to take photographs and write a story,” he recalled. “I had bought a $2.25 Yoshika camera and I had no idea what I was doing with it.” But he was open to the new experience, willing to try something different. “I’m glad the Lord was with me,” he later joked, “because the photographs came out pretty good.”

Mr. Thompson stuck with this new hobby after returning to Oklahoma. It soon became a career: he got a job reporting for the Oklahoma Eagle, Tulsa’s historically Black newspaper. And then the career became, as Ms. Gates’ writing was for her, something bigger.

“A lot of tradition and history was at Greenwood during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it was changing–not because it wanted to but because it was being forced to” by urban renewal, Mr. Thompson emphasized. That “renewal,” despite the name, was destructive. It forced many Greenwood businesses to close, and charted a highway–Interstate 244–through the neighborhood’s historic heart. Mr. Thompson photographed that process as it happened, documenting the neighborhood’s decline. He bore witness to the ways systemic forces, like economic and infrastructure policies, impacted individual lives. 

Ms. Gates was bound by a sense of duty to do the same through her work. Beyond researching and writing three books on Oklahoma history–books like They Came Searching, which covered the early Black settlement of the state; and Riot on Greenwood, which addressed the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre’s devastation–she also served on the original Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot (as it was called then) starting in 1998.

That group’s final report, published in 2001, demanded reparations for the Massacre’s survivors and descendants. “My wishlist–which I don’t think we’ll ever get–would be that there would be adequate monetary payments to survivors, the living survivors,” Ms. Gates stated on 60 Minutes that year. Thus far, she is correct. As of 2022, reparations for the Race Massacre have still not been paid. 

Another debt for Ms. Gates was to Tulsa children. “I am very disturbed about what’s going on in Tulsa,” she confessed in 1991. Due to a “lag in curriculum changes” and “apathy and/or alienation from societal institutions,” children had–as Mr. Thompson might have put it–their backs against a wall. The solution, she argued, was improved education. Young people “must be educated with the finest curriculum, teachers, enrichments, supplies, etc.” as she insisted elsewhere, “not only for their sakes, but for the benefit of the whole society.” 

Given their shared concerns, it is perhaps little wonder that Mr. Thompson and Ms. Gates ultimately joined forces. The Tulsa World, in 1994, reported that the pair had “begun work on a documentary project that will combine oral histories and photography to tell the stories of early Black settlers in Tulsa.”

Like Mr. Thompson’s photographs of North Tulsa youth–and like Ms. Gates’ efforts to overhaul the city curriculum for that same group–this project focused on how individuals navigated systemic oppression. Their aim was “to interview 50 prominent Black Tulsa leaders about the hopes and ambitions that led them to move to Tulsa, and how they managed to create meaningful, productive lives in spite of segregation and discrimination, and how the Black community worked to rebuild itself after the devastation of the 1921 Tulsa race riot.” It was a project grounded in–and emphasizing–the same hope Mr. Thompson’s photographs conveyed, and the same optimism driving Ms. Gates’ writing.


1. Melanie Busch, “FACES of the North Side: Photographers’ exhibit tries to dispel myths, promote harmony between races,” Tulsa World, March 2, 1992. (accessed November 28, 2022).

2. Book TV, “Voices in the Struggle: African American Orators,” C-SPAN2 video, February 7, 2004.

3. Cathy Spaulding, “Tulsa educator tours Holocaust sites,” Tulsa World, August 26, 1991. (accessed November 28, 2022).

4. Wesley Brown, “Photographer Stumbles into Rewarding Career,” Tulsa World, June 2, 1993. (accessed November 28, 2022).

5. Bob Simon, correspondent, “Tulsa Burning,” 60 Minutes, November 9, 1999.

6. Spaulding, “Tulsa educator tours Holocaust sites.” 

7. Eddie Faye Gates, “Teacher reviews what you can do to help youth,” Tulsa World, October 10, 1990. (accessed November 28, 2022). Final quotation in “Tulsa Students Support Chinese Protest,” Tulsa World, May 23, 1989. (accessed November 28, 2022).

8. “Photographer, Writer Plan Documentary,” Tulsa World, June 21, 1994. (accessed November 28, 2022).

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant CAGML-247978-OMLS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.