Descendants of the Black 1000: Flight from Oklahoma Black Towns to Canada
Nov. 9, 2023-April 1, 2024
Mary LeFlore Clements Oklahoma Gallery
View the Artist Talk here
Descendants of the Black 1000: Flight from Oklahoma Black Towns to Canada features the work of Canadian artists Donna Paris and David Ofori Zapparoli, whose collaborative project foregrounds untold stories that trace the historical movement of Black communities over time. A selection of 12 photographs with corresponding oral history audio recordings from their project Black Threads of the Canadian Tapestry reveals the deep connections between Black Canadians and Oklahoma, from where many of the portrait sitters’ forebears hail. Through photographs, interviews, and archival materials, Descendants of the Black 1000 creates a fuller picture of how Black history in Oklahoma had an international reach, going beyond the state and connecting communities across the continent.
Through the black-and-white portraits and the poignant voices of the descendants of the Black 1000, we learn of the events that led those seeking freedom to leave Oklahoma and find refuge in Canada. Black presence and movement within Oklahoma is longstanding. The emergence of Black Towns during and after slavery, along with the land runs in the early 1900s, brought Freedmen and other formerly enslaved settlers to the region seeking safe haven in our state.
Prior to statehood in 1907, what was previously known as Indian Territory was in the process of evolving into an egalitarian place, unusually progressive at the time. With the Five Nations having abolished slavery at the end of the Civil War, citizenship and land rights offered in the area made it attractive to Black settlers.
However, upon statehood, the first legislation written into state law was segregation that enforced disenfranchisement, enacted Jim Crow laws, and systemically stoked racial animosity toward Black Oklahomans, leading to flight further west, to Mexico, and to Canada. Between 1908 and 1911, more than 1,000 Black Oklahomans migrated to the Canadian prairies in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Descendants of the Black 1000: Flight from Oklahoma Black Towns to Canada reveals an important story that not only charts the migration but also captures the human spirit that stirs people into movement away from persecution, speaking to how the promise of land can be blighted. The sheer will to traverse expanses to unknown areas within the continent toward safety and freedom–what it takes to clear and cultivate land in a new place with harsh winters and to build homes and forge community from the ground up–is drawn from a wellspring of fortitude and hope passed down to descendants. The story continues.
Descendants of the Black 1000: Flight from Oklahoma Black Towns to Canada is organized by Gay Pasley, guest curator, with the support of Joy D’Ann Tucker, guest curatorial research associate, in collaboration with Oklahoma Contemporary.
Donna Paris (b. 1955, Nova Scotia, Canada) is a multi-generational African Canadian based in Toronto. She has produced a series of interviews chronicling the various journeys taken by African Canadians and their ancestors to arrive north. Paris’s work centers the importance of collective history—who came before and at what cost—toward enabling us to fully access our present selves and move forward together.
Based in Toronto, David Ofori Zapparoli (b. 1957, Toronto, Canada) is the son of a German mother, a Ghanaian father, and an Italian stepfather. His lens-based art documents and reveals the lives of the marginalized within society, telling the story particularly of the Black experience in the North American milieu. Zapparoli collaborates with artist Donna Paris by producing the photographic portraits of all the interviewees. His black-and-white photographs tend to resist the viewer’s ability to pinpoint the place and time of each subject, opening the possibility of connecting to other locales and histories.
Gay Pasley is a social justice nurse, community leader, writer, and photographer, whose work has been featured in Abstract, Loud Zoo, and Maintenant: A Journal of Dada Writing and Art. She is also a regular contributor to Art Mama Moves. A graduate of the Oklahoma City Red Earth MFA Program, she has given lectures at organizations such as the International Association of Forensic Nurses, John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, Ralph Ellison Foundation, Scissortail Writing Festival, and Society for Photographic Education. Pasley is the 2023 winner of the Everett Southwest Literary Award and has been published in Amistad, elsewhere, Flatbush Review, Hard Crackers Press, Morkan’s Horse, Minola Review, Obsidian Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Thread, and Transition, among others. As a Black female immigrant, Pasley speaks to her sense of displacement and desire to magnify her witness in her artistic practice.
Guest Curatorial Research Associate
Joy D’Ann Tucker grew up in Clovis, New Mexico, where her multicultural and art-infused upbringing influenced her love for the arts. A graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma, she majored in history and museum studies and served two internships at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History as a junior curator in Culture and Community Life and in Museum Management and Installation. At Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Tucker was an intern in Communications and Marketing. She served as the 2021 ArtTable Fellow at Oklahoma Contemporary, contributing an essay to the exhibition brochure for Rope/Fire/Water. She subsequently received a one-year grant at the Oklahoma History Center, where she digitized the African American collection archives from 1910 to 1980 as project coordinator. She aspires to contribute to the incorporation of West African and Afro-diasporic arts and culture in local and national museum institutions.