The Tulsa Race Massacre: why it's important to understand and how to teach it

Reuters


Many of us (myself included) first learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre within the last few years, and as we approach the 100th anniversary it's important to make sure we, and our kids, understand this important part of American history.

What was the Tulsa Race Massacre? 

Black Wall Street 

After WWI as racial tensions soared, Tulsa experienced an economic boom due to oil profits. The city's 10,000 Black citizens lived in the Greenwood neighborhood on land purchased by wealthy Black landowner O.W. Gurley in the late 1800s. Gurley intended for the community to be 'For Black People, By Black People'. Greenwood developed a thriving business district often referred to as Black Wall Street that consisted of all Black owned businesses - movie theaters, luxury hotels, luxury shops, grocery stores, libraries, doctors' and lawyers' offices, salons, barbershops, a school system, post office, and hospital. It was said that in Greenwood every dollar changed hands 19 times before leaving the neighborhood. Greenwood also had its own newspaper that educated its citizens on their rights, legislation updates, and court rulings.

The Massacre

On May 30, 1921 a Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an office building elevator with a white woman elevator operator. The elevator operator screamed, the police arrived at the scene and arrested Rowland. Rumors of what happened in the elevator spread across Tulsa, and the [white newspaper] Tulsa Tribune falsely reported that Rowland had been arrested for sexual assault in the elevator.

A mob of white vigilantes gathered at the courthouse to demand the police hand over Rowland and attempted to break into the National Guard Armory. A group of 75 armed Black men, many WWI veterans, showed up to protect the teenager and were met by the mob of 1,000 armed white men. The mob included civilians armed/deputized by local authorities and members of the State National Guard (is this starting to sound like another recent event to anyone else?). The white mobs marched to Greenwood and over the next 48 hours destroyed 35 blocks of the neighborhood. The white mobs burned buildings, looted homes and businesses, murdered residents, and planes dropped kerosene bombs into the town. 

The Aftermath

35 blocks of Greenwood were completely burned to the ground - businesses, churches, schools, homes, hospitals. 300 Black residents were dead and 10,000 were left homeless. Bodies were reportedly thrown into the Arkansas River and into mass graves, and hundreds (some reports say thousands) of survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to stay in work camps for weeks until they were vouched for by white citizens. The city prosecuted Black survivors for inciting the massacre.

Insurance claims for homes and businesses burned down were rejected and no one was held accountable for the massacre.

Why Didn't I Hear About This Until Recently?

Authorities went to great lengths to cover up the worst race massacre in US history. Public ceremonies and memorials for the lives lost were forbidden, the Tulsa Tribune removed articles about the massacre from its bound volumes, and the police and state militia archives removed all information about the event. Oklahoma schools did not start teaching about the massacre until 2002, and even 83% of Oklahomans say they never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

However a recent bill signed into law by Oklahoma's governor that bans "lessons that include the concept that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," that a person's "moral character is inherently determined by his or her race or sex," or that someone should feel discomfort, guilt or distress on account of their race or sex" are reportedly changing the way, or IF, the Tulsa Race Massacre is covered in OK schools as teachers fear lawsuits for leading conversations on the topic.

Why It's Important to Understand the Tulsa Race Massacre

This is an incredibly important part of our history and is just one event that shows how throughout US history when, against all odds, Black people found success it was violently taken from them. It is crucial in understanding how our economic and social structures are where they are today. We also know history repeats itself, and this story has some eerily familiar elements. 

How to Talk to Kids About the Tulsa Race Massacre

As a former educator I understand the difficult line we walk in educating kids about America's violent history. It's important for kids to grow up understanding these concepts to inform their world view, but many teachers are faced with obstacles when trying to teach these events in the classroom. It is imperative that parents/aunts/uncles/churches/communities take an active responsibility in educating our kids. Below are some resources to guide conversations:

Resources to Continue Our Education on the Tulsa Race Massacre

📺Tulsa's Buried Truth on Hulu
📺 PBS documentary Going Back to T-Town 
📖Learn more historic events not taught in school that kept Black people down in White Rage by Carol Anderson.

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