Bob Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, offers 10 of the top images associated with the state before the Oklahoma City Thunder came to town.
Oklahoma City bombing
With 24-hour news channels spanning the globe by the early 1990s, people around the world were eye-witnesses to the devastation of America's most violent act of domestic terrorism. The shock of that real-time news was followed quickly by images of compassion, heroism and communal grief as the people of the city and state rallied to help their stricken neighbors. The response to the disaster became known as the Oklahoma Standard.
As the world reeled from the brutality of World War II, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein created the smash Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” with its optimistic message of new frontiers with eternal hope and love. A decade later it was adapted into an award-winning movie that is still considered a classic. To much of the world, Oklahoma is the place where “we know we belong to the land, 'cause the land we belong to is grand.”
The name “Oklahoma” literally means “red people” which is both a reflection of historical reality and an expression of self identity. With the exception of the Panhandle and Old Greer County, the 46th State was formerly the Indian Territory, where almost 40 tribes were colonized from the 1810s to the 1880s. From the Wild West shows of the 19th century to modern movies, Oklahoma's image in popular culture has been linked with the image of American Indians.
In a country where oil and natural gas have fueled the flames of economic progress for more than 100 years, Oklahoma has been known for its wildcatters, gushers, and growth through the drill bit. Images of the oil patch range from Tulsa, “The Oil Capital of the World,” to the distinctive derricks ringing the grounds of the State Capitol.
Country and western music
Oklahoma has long been a crossroads of creativity where cultural baggage brought from every corner of the world merges into new forms of expression. In no other art form has this burst of creativity energy moved the rest of world like country and western music. From Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie to Garth Brooks to Reba McEntire, Oklahoma is the crucible of country music performers.
Home of Will Rogers
In terms of a crossover career that spans stage, screen, journalism, and social commentary, there has never been a more popular performer than Will Rogers during the 1920s and 1930s. This champion of the common man was proud of his Cherokee heritage and his birth in what would become Oklahoma. His memorial museum in Claremore has perpetuated Will's distinctive legacy for subsequent generations.
‘Grapes of Wrath'
As artists, John Steinbeck created one of the greatest stories in American fiction and John Ford directed a movie adaptation that translated the story into unforgettable images of the human spirit. At the same time, they painted a picture of Oklahoma as a dry, windblown state where dreams were shattered by hard times and the Dust Bowl. Their intent was to create dramatic tension, but many people accepted their images as reality.
Home of Mickey Mantle
Just as Mickey Mantle, the good-looking, charismatic baseball player from Oklahoma hit the big league stage in New York City, the new technology of television was bringing baseball into the homes of millions of families across the country. Seemingly bigger than life, the “Commerce Comet” became a legend in his own time to both fans and sports writers who traced his country boy image back to the hills of Oklahoma.
In a media-driven world where image is often based on dramatic tension, there is no more sudden fury and gut-wrenching human drama than a tornado ripping across the landscape. Oklahoma, for geographical and climatological reasons, is dead center in the middle of Tornado Alley where weather forecasters such as Gary England are household names featured in movies such as “Twister.”
In the 1950s, as Oklahomans fought back against the image of their state as a dream-killing Dust Bowl, the soaring success of Bud Wilkinson's football teams generated pride and a new spirit of youthful vigor. Outside the state, the image of the Sooner football juggernaut would continue under Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops, especially after each hard-won victory over their arch rival, the University of Texas.