Black History Month Spotlight: Venita Cooper Is Creating a Powerful Sneaker Concept on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

2021 marks FN’s fourth year of presenting its Black History Month Spotlight series, which shines a light on some of the remarkable executives, entrepreneurs and designers in the shoe industry. As part of our ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business, we will continue to amplify the voices and stories of Black movers and shakers who are worthy to be recognized all year round.

Looking back. Facing forward.

Amid a racial reckoning across America, a rebirth is underway in Tulsa, Okla.’s historic Greenwood district as the city marks the 100th anniversary of the “Black Wall Street” massacre.

Venita Cooper, owner of Silhouette Sneakers & Art, is one of the innovative Black entrepreneurs revitalizing an area still haunted by the memories of the 1921 riot, when a White mob destroyed the African American community.

“Coming off the history of Black Wall Street, we still haven’t repaired all of those harms,” Cooper said. “I would argue that we are the one of the more integrated spaces [in Tulsa]. Everyone loves sneakers — whether they’re men, women, Black, White, Brown, straight, queer. We get all kinds of people in here. It’s been a racially charged year, and yet this business that sells discretionary goods in a racially segregated city was able to survive.”

The boutique’s connection to the past is evident just outside its entrance — a plaque marks the spot where Grier shoe shop once sold footwear to local residents until it was destroyed in the massacre.

A century later, Cooper, a former educator who opened her store in fall 2019, is building a powerful retail concept centered around the hot sneaker resale market and an art gallery showcasing a rotating selection of street art.

“Our community loves a lot of what people in other communities love — Jordan 1s, Dunks. Tulsa loves Nike Blazers,” Cooper noted. “The zeal for Yeezy has dropped off.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has presented some unexpected challenges for Cooper and her young business — the shop was forced to close for six weeks last spring — she rapidly adapted to the changing landscape.

Silhouette Sneakers + Art, Black Wall Street, tulsa
Inside the store, which has become a sneaker hotspot in Tulsa.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Venita Cooper

During the brick-and-mortar shutdown, Cooper built her store’s digital operations and used social media to engage consumers. Along the way, she uncovered some fresh opportunities. One shift we’ve made is now we carry way more youth sizes and more large sizes,” she said, adding that more women are now shopping the expanded selection.

Once it reopened in the summer, more customers frequented the store — to buy and sell their kicks — and local organizations began to take notice, rallying around the business. “Tulsa is community oriented, and people go to bat for each other,” Cooper said.

That spirit was on full display in December, when in a surprise move, Tulsa’s Transformation Church purchased 186 pairs of sneakers — valued at $65,000 — from the sneaker shop and donated them to a local boys’ home. “Their pastor Mike Todd said, ‘I am buying all of the shoes in your store.’ I thought I was being punked,” Cooper joked. (She plans to invite residents of the boys’ home to the store post pandemic.)

To pay it forward, the retailer decided to pay rent for a family in Tulsa who needed assistance. “The plan had been to help one family, but we had so many requests — and so many people and small businesses who wanted to help. We got over 100 donations and supported [more than] 25 families,” Cooper said.

With the holidays now in rear view and 2021 in full swing, Cooper plans to continue to build brand awareness through some meaningful local partnerships that shine a light on the city’s past, while helping foster its future. I’m still learning Tulsa, the history — and how to navigate politics. They’re a lot of different factions,” Cooper said. “It feels magnified now given that we’re approaching the centennial.”

In April and May, the store will host an exhibit featuring the work of a local photographer who is recreating historical photos from the massacre. In June, Cooper plans to unveil a “Black Cowboy” collection with Tulsa’s Black-owned and designed Lord Primo brand. “We want to elevate these stories from the Midwest and Black history,” Cooper said. “We’re going to have horses down here with modern-day Black cowboys.”

Grier Shoemaker, Tulsa Race Massacre
Grier shop shop, near Cooper’s store, was destroyed in the 1921 massacre.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Venita Cooper

Cooper also plans to partner with the Philbrook Museum of Art on a collection that will pay tribute to the T-Town Clowns, a semi-professional Negro League baseball team.

Silhouette Sneakers & Art has already joined forces with the Oklahoma City Thunder  — Cooper is a “huge” fan — and will hold an event with the basketball team at the end of February and also plans to drop some special Thunder merchandise. The store’s tie-up with the team is important to Cooper, in large part because of the Thunders’ own commitment to the city’s Black community. (The Thunders Fellow Program, which will have staff and offices in Greenwood, aims to create a pipeline to roles in sports, entertainment and tech for Black students in Tulsa.)

Cooper knows that there is much work to be done before true racial equality can be achieved — and it goes far beyond “Buy Black,” a movement that unites people around Black businesses.

“I don’t think there are easy solutions. We have to level the playing field by investing in public education, mental health, health care and living wages so people can afford their homes,” Cooper said. “That way kids will have every opportunity. If they want to open a sneaker store, they will have a chance to do that.”

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