The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Sunday, December 5, 2021

He's sharing the history of Black New York, one tweet at a time
Sola Olosunde, a graduate student and archival image enthusiast, in New York on July 30, 2020, with part of his collection of yearbooks from predominately Black schools and universities. Olosunde posts threads of archival photographs, news clippings and video footage on Twitter, racking up tens of thousands of retweets and likes. Naima Green/The New York Times.

by Iman Stevenson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When a video of a racist attack on Black children by white residents of Rosedale, Queens, in 1975 was posted on Twitter last summer, it quickly drew attention — and has now been viewed more than 4.5 million times.

But few know about the man who unearthed and posted the clip, Oluwanisola “Sola” Olosunde, who wasn’t even born when the attack was filmed.

Olosunde, 24, is a history enthusiast who posts threads of archival photographs, news clippings and video footage on Twitter, racking up tens of thousands of retweets and likes. He found the Rosedale footage on YouTube while doing research.

One look at Olosunde, seated on a park bench in Bedford Stuyvesant wearing a powder blue suit, a white Kangol Bermuda hat and a face adorned with slightly overgrown mutton chops, and it’s obvious how deeply he connects to the past. He meticulously pores through vintage clothing on eBay to get his look, he said. He often gets stopped because of what he wears.

Although he is a model and a photographer, the current Urban Planning graduate student in his last year at Hunter College is most interested in history. But not a romanticized version of bygone eras. He specifically focuses on images of the ordinary, day-to-day lives of New York City’s Black inhabitants in the recent past.

“I post a lot of things that are New York, Black and urban,” he said. “So if it’s a blend of those things, then it’s like perfect to post.”

Olosunde lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, until he was 11, then moved to Far Rockaway, Queens.

“I just wanted to be a person that knows everything about where I live,” he said.

The content he posts varies, from a peek at what Flatbush, Brooklyn, looked like in 1986 to the story of Larry Davis, a Black man from the Bronx who shot six police officers that same year.

“I used to always think, ‘What would a kid my age be doing?’ Like, what was the life of a young, Black kid growing up in Brooklyn in 1979? How did he look at life?”

The child of Nigerian parents, Olosunde was drawn to history by the stories his father told him about arriving in New York in the 1980s.

“By the time I got to high school, I was really good at history,” he said. “Like, I did really good on my Regents. And I didn’t have a notebook for the class.”

In college, his passion was stoked by expansive libraries, where he could truly explore.

“A lot of what I was studying didn’t have anything to do with what I was learning in class,” he said. “If there was a term paper that we had to do, I would try to find a way to make it about New York.”

He began digging through City University of New York’s libraries and its online academic databases. He made trips to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and uses an app on his phone to scan his finds. He even uses eBay as a resource: That’s where he turned to start his collection of Black high school yearbooks.

What propelled him to begin posting on Twitter, though, was his desire to share the information he found.

“I am a student, and most of my friends — an overwhelming majority of my friends — didn’t go to college or never even finished,” he said. “They wouldn’t even know about any of this stuff that I’m learning. How are their minds supposed to change on things if they’re not exposed to it? And the only way to expose them to it was through social media.”

He said that he is attempting to bridge a gap — that there are basic things he believes his generation should know. That is why he posted a thread on the crack epidemic.

Sharing the material he finds does not come without consequences. From time to time, there are copyright issues. His posts have been taken down.

“My Twitter account has been locked a couple of times because of what I’m doing,” he said.

Still, Olosunde’s interest in New York history, particularly of the 20th century, has introduced him to a whole cast of fascinating characters.

“There’s a guy named Father Divine. He’s from Harlem. He was big in the 20s and 30s, but he was like a cult leader, essentially. And he used to feed and house his followers. He didn’t accept donations,” he said. “But for some reason, he had a lot of money. No one knows how he got this money.”

Olosunde came across the story in a book titled “Harlem: A Negro Metropolis,” by Claude McKay, that was published in 1940. Primary sources, which he prefers, he said, “aren’t watered down.”

People often volunteer information, too. That was the case when a man sent him photos in response to a post on Twitter about police raids aimed at ridding the East Village of squatters in 1995.

The man “used to live across the street from the squatters,” Olosunde said. “So basically all that was going on in front of his house.”

But Olosunde admits that what started as a hobby is starting to feel like work. Work that has become trickier to do now that the pandemic has prevented him from physically going to do research.

The New York Public Library has granted at-home access to certain databases. But, he said frankly, “Unemployment has been paying for my subscriptions to some of these things.”

In the future, Olosunde, who is currently a strategic planning intern at the New York City Housing Authority, wants to become a history professor. He also wants to curate a museum exhibit and use his knowledge of history to act as a consultant on movies, particularly period pieces.

For now, he will continue to curate posts on Twitter. He is careful not to insert any biases into the captions.

“I don’t have a particular agenda,” Olosunde said. “I just want people to learn.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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