The Tulsa Race Massacre Isn't Taught in Many Schools, But it Should Be
Long after the United States abolished slavery in 1865, Black Americans still face systemic racism. There are several events in American history that point to the lasting impact of slavery and the Tulsa Race Massacre is an important one for students to learn about. Unfortunately, Oklahoma is the only state that requires the teaching of this devastating historical event in public schools, and the official legislation to make the curriculum universal across the state only began this year.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 sat Greenwood, one of the most prosperous Black American communities in the United States. Black Wall Street, as the neighborhood was known, was home to a thriving community of Black Americans who had created a self-sufficient and prosperous business district in the city. On May 30, 1921, a seemingly small event set off a chain of devastating events that are now suppressed by history.
The details of what happened that day vary, but this is what is generally believed to have happened: Word of mouth spread across the city that a Black man named Dick Rowland had an altercation with a white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. The Oklahoma Historical Society notes that the most common explanation as to what really happened is that "Rowland stepped on Page's foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream," but others believed Rowland assaulted Page on the elevator—it is unclear what Page reported to the police. The Tulsa Tribune published an editorial on the incident titled, "To Lynch Negro Tonight," which encouraged the town's white citizens to avenge Page. White Tulsans in the area refused to wait for an investigative process to play out, provoking two days of unprecedented racial violence. Thirty-five city blocks in Tulsa's Black Greenwood neighborhood were set ablaze during continuous riots and acts of brutality—300 people died, and 800 were injured.
Like many acts of racist violence in America's history, white people felt justified in using vigilante justice against Black people without due process or the facts of the situation. This devastating loss of Black life and wealth still haunts race relations in Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood District today. It's also one of the most lively yet overlooked examples of how Black Americans have historically been kept from building and maintaining wealth.
The Long-Term Impact of the Destruction of Black Wealth
"White Americans were able to kill African Americans and destroy their communities and not get punished," says Karen Stanton, reading instructional coach at the West Philadelphia Achievement Elementary Charter School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which teaches students about the Tulsa Race Massacre every year. "African American lives were lost, businesses and homes were destroyed; no one was held accountable."
Stanton explains that Black Wall Street shows the "extraordinary abilities and gifts African American freed slaves had to contribute to the world. They made plans and worked to bring their dreams to life." According to the Harvard Gazette, white Tulsans resented the more than 10,000 Black residents of Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood and their wealth. The fires, rioting, looting, destruction of property, and murders associated with the Tulsa Race Massacre cost Black families an estimated $200 billion in today's money.
Tara Brooke Watkins, an assistant professor of theatre for social justice at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, says the self-determination of the Black Tulsans who built Black Wall Street is a testament to their brilliance. Watkins says discussing the events of the massacre that destroyed Black Wall Street is critical to understanding systemic racism's effects on poverty.
Teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre
Watkins teaches the Tulsa Race Massacre to 9- to 18-year-olds—this age can start to comprehend the injustice and brutality of the event—and says students are typically shocked to hear the account of what happened in 1921. "When I discussed the Tulsa Race Massacre—which was still being called a riot in 2017—with these students, the majority of them had not heard of the event," she says. It's important that the word massacre is used instead of riot to acknowledge the total devastation of the series of events that took place.
A good way to teach difficult subjects like the Tulsa Race Massacre is through theatre, says Watkins, because it has the power to bridge divides in society. A play Watkins wrote about the Massacre, Tulsa ’21: Black Wall Street, premiered in Tulsa in 2018. Within the school setting, Watkins relies on an Indigenous practice called story circles to respectfully and thoughtfully share and discuss some of the first-person experiences of the massacre as written by survivors and found in archival records.
For the younger kids, she allows them to process this historical event by role-playing and using their imagination. Students are instructed on how to create a product to sell. After working on their product, the students open up their own "Black Wall Street" at the community center, where they sell their products to people for real money. After one class event, Watkins prompted the students to discuss what it would be like if what happened to the real Black Wall Street had happened to them. Of the many answers she heard, one she'll never forget from one of her Black students was, "I'm scared. What if white people come to burn it down again?"
Because the story circle is about making space, Watkins’s job in the process was simply to let her student express the thought without interruption or judgment. “I honored her vulnerable risk-taking by listening and letting her process her fears aloud instead of becoming a teacher who had to have answers to unanswerable situations,” Watkins says. The most important thing is just to get kids talking about the tragic events that occurred in Tulsa in 1921. As this generation watches systemic racism in action and witnesses protests in the name of justice for murdered Black people, the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre is all too relevant. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and a shift towards social justice over the last few months, educating our children about painful moments like this can help avoid their repetition.
"Not just African American students, but all children need to learn about what happened almost 100 years ago in Tulsa," says Stacy Gill-Phillips, Ph.D., CEO of the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School. "It should be embedded into social studies curriculum in all school districts, urban and suburban."
Lesson Plans and Resources for Parents and Teachers
Lesson plan for high school level: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, Tulsa2021.org
Lesson plan for college level: The Destruction of Black Wall Street, The Ohio State University
Additional reading: Burned Out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silenced Voices of the Tulsa Massacre, Zinn Education Project
Additional Reading: Remember the Tulsa Race Riot, Teaching Tolerance
Additional Reading: The Massacre of Black Wall Street Illustrated History, HBO for The Atlantic