'Rise Up: Black Wall Street'

The story of Black Wall Street is one of hope, tragedy, and perseverance. The Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, became known as “Black Wall Street” in the early part of the 20th century thanks to the scores of successful Black-owned businesses and Black homeowners. 

But on May 31, 1921, Greenwood residents saw everything they had worked for and built collapse. After a Black man was accused of raping a white woman, enraged whites descended on the area, looting shops, burning buildings, and murdering anyone with the wrong skin color. After two days, 35 city blocks were reduced to rubble, 300 people were dead, and 800 were injured. What’s more, 9,000 residents were left homeless—and no whites were arrested. The Tulsa massacre was a gut punch that still reverberates across the Greenwood community today.

And yet, when the Sidwell Friends Black Student Union (BSU) made Greenwood the theme of their 2022 production, they chose to celebrate the history and future of Black entrepreneurship with Rise Up: Black Wall Street. “One of the main goals for this show was to be more optimistic and hopeful,” says Becki M’Mari ’23, a co-president of the BSU. “Although the story of Black Wall Street is also the story of the Tulsa massacre, there was so much more about that city we wanted to portray.”

This year’s BSU show was both a dynamic homage to Greenwood and a joyous return to the stage. The last time the production went live was just days before the 2020 pandemic lockdown.
In 2021, the show went virtual, with parents, guardians, and siblings stepping in as camera operators to get footage of performers all over the city in celebration of DC’s Black history. 

“I started doing the BSU show in 7th grade,” says Sophie Valbrune ’23, the BSU secretary. “I did three live shows, and the virtual one in 10th grade. So hearing that all the magic that I had known in the past years was going to be back onstage was pretty exciting. I knew that we had to make this our big comeback year.”

While the members of the BSU do receive support from Sidwell Friends faculty and staff, the lion’s share of the production lies in student hands. “By having us doing it, we got to put in exactly what we wanted to show,” says Molina Dew-Brunis ’23. “It was exactly our vision.”

Part of that vision included working with participating Lower School students, who performed an enthusiastic rendition of “Almost There” from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. “I always knew that if we were going to feature Black businesses, I really wanted the Lower Schoolers to sing ‘Almost There,’” says Valbrune. “As a child, The Princess and the Frog was really eye-opening, seeing a Black female as a Disney princess who worked hard for what she got—and I knew they would look adorable.”

Rise Up: Black Wall Street was also the first live BSU production since the passing of Brittany Chase, who was integral to previous productions. “She was always on my mind,” says Dew-Brunis. “When Sophie was trying to get everyone to sing louder and dance better, I was thinking, ‘Oh, Ms. Chase would always get us together like that.’” M’Mari agrees. “I found myself thinking about her a lot,” she says. “I wish I could have said something to her to let her know how much I appreciated her in the years I knew her. I’m really thankful to have known her.” 

The BSU Production has always been a key part of life at Sidwell Friends for all members of the community, whether they’re onstage, in the audience, or watching the show from home. “Students creating a production and putting their own vision onto the stage for the whole School community is something very special,” says Khalab Blagburn ’23, another BSU co-president. “That’s why this production continues to be so important.”

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