Before COVID-19 and eventually after it is gone, one of my favorite activities as mayor of Tulsa is the chance to host student groups in my office for questions and answers. The discussion is usually a reminder of how bright our city’s future is, and it is important to me that young Tulsans view public service as something accessible to them.
As we have those discussions, almost invariably one of the students will ask who the man is in the portrait that hangs over my desk in the Mayor’s Office. I love that question, because it gives me the chance to tell them about one of the great heroes in Tulsa’s history: Thomas Gilcrease.
Thomas Gilcrease was a true visionary. He saw value where others missed it – be that in the energy business at first, or in both art and American history later in his life. And he didn’t just see things others couldn’t, he had the confidence of his convictions to follow through on that vision. As I tell these students, he was willing to be different – to not follow the herd – and because of that, we get to enjoy the greatest collection of American art and history in the nation outside of Washington, D.C.
Today, Gilcrease Museum stands as a tribute to those qualities of independence and courage. But Mr. Gilcrease would be the first to point out that the greatest inspiration at the museum resides in the collection. And in the historical documents now on display, we can draw similar inspiration. Whether it be the certification of Paul Revere to conduct the business of the colonies or the Cherokee Syllabary or Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the chance to see these documents that held so much meaning to those who shaped our history makes that history direct and relevant for a new generation of Americans.
The opportunity to see historical artifacts with our own eyes draws history out of the abstract and humanizes it for us. The fact that these artifacts reside in Tulsa helps young Tulsans appreciate that history is not something that happened to other people – it is something brought about by normal people from diverse life experiences who use the same tools we do.
This is why I drag my own children to historic sites whenever we travel. They’ve eaten ice cream at the same sundry counter where Harry Truman once worked in high school. They’ve seen Woodrow Wilson’s kangaroo fur coat on display in his home. They’ve seen Ronald Reagan’s cowboy boots and Richard Nixon’s limousine. All of this has allowed history and the people who make it to come alive in their minds. And one of the great blessings of Gilcrease Museum is that Tulsans need not travel across the country or the world for this to happen.
As the mayor of Tulsa, I am excited for the future of Gilcrease Museum and the opportunities before us to make this remarkable collection even more accessible for future generations of history makers.