The state of Oklahoma has decided to incorporate the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre into their curriculum for high school students. Up until recently, the historic event was not required as a part of the curriculum. Critics contend the omission of this event is another example of the whitewashing of our history which results in a failure to confront our past.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, sometimes referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot, took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. The story is a familiar one during this period in the United States. Common Dreams explains that a young black man was accused of raping a white woman, likely a false claim, which led to a standoff between a white mob and a number of black residents who attempted to protect the young man.
The standoff quickly escalated as the local newspaper called for a lynching the following day. The white mob began rioting — the result was thousands of white people coming together to essentially burn down the entire black side of town, killing an estimated three hundred African Americans, and leaving the prosperous African American neighborhoods in ruins that it would never fully recover from. “Napalm-like” bombs were even reportedly dropped from private fertilizer planes.
According to Common Dreams, Tulsa was then home to one of America’s most preeminent black communities, despite this being the Jim Crow era when a railroad separated them from the more prosperous white neighborhoods. The black community in Tulsa resided in the Greenwood neighborhood, often referred to as “Black Wall Street”, because of the “proliferation of of black-owned businesses, restaurants and law offices, as well as a library and hospital”.
The Tulsa Race Massacre Commission confirmed that rather than being a spontaneous uprising by the white community, the entire white power structure worked together to ensure the destruction of the Greenwood community. Officials did little to intervene in the burning of homes and businesses, they even armed some of the white vigilantes as deputies, and did not prosecute any white men for their roles in the massacre. Additionally, no aid was offered to rebuild the charred neighborhoods.
Many historians believe that the attacks stemmed from a “jealousy of the success of the black community by white residents”. Greenwood was also viewed as prime real estate by speculators for industrial and railroad interests. American history teaches us that any advance in Black power and freedom is viewed as a threat to white supremacy and dominance.
One of the reasons slaves were not allowed to read was because slaveholders feared that they might learn about ideas of freedom and equality. Black World War I veterans were targeted because white extremists viewed their uniform as a threat. They believed the uniform could provide a black man with pride. This was dangerous because it could lead them to believe they deserve equality.
Our failure to teach the true history of the United States has serious consequences for the contemporary context of African-Americans. As a report about lynching and racial terrorism by the Equal Justice Initiative explains,
“This report begins a necessary conversation to confront the injustice, inequality, anguish, and suffering that racial terror and violence created. The history of terror lynching complicates contemporary issues of race, punishment, crime, and justice. Mass incarceration, excessive penal punishment, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were framed in the terror era. The narrative of racial difference that lynching dramatized continues to haunt us. Avoiding honest conversation about this history has undermined our ability to build a nation where racial justice can be achieved.”
In an extremely provocative Ted Talk, Bryan Stevenson discusses how the the African American experience in the United States has been defined by terror. Terrorism, whether it was by the Ku Klux Klan, the police, or the judicial system, has been used throughout American history as a way to control the Black population,
“And it’s interesting, when I teach my students about African-American history, I tell them about slavery. I tell them about terrorism, the era that began at the end of reconstruction that went on to World War II. We don’t really know very much about it. But for African-Americans in this country, that was an era defined by terror. In many communities, people had to worry about being lynched. They had to worry about being bombed. It was the threat of terror that shaped their lives. And these older people come up to me now and they say, “Mr. Stevenson, you give talks, you make speeches, you tell people to stop saying we’re dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.” They tell me to say, “No, tell them that we grew up with that.” And that era of terrorism, of course, was followed by segregation and decades of racial subordination and apartheid.”
In his best selling book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen describes how the language we use to describe our history can be just as damaging as omitting events entirely. In one example, he describes how our use of the word “discovery” to explain the European colonization of the Americas has significant implications, “The point isn’t idle. Words are important — they can influence, and in some cases rationalize, policy. In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that Cherokees had certain rights to their land in Georgia by dint of their “occupancy” but that whites had superior rights owing to their “discovery””. He goes on to ponder how whites could have discovered a place that was already occupied.
There has been a push by many advocates to stop referring to the events in Tulsa as the “Tulsa Race Riot”, because it only serves to distort the reality of what actually happened. It also serves to place blame on the Black community because of the connotations that many Americans have with the word “race riot”. Instead, many people are beginning to refer to it as the “Tulsa Race Massacre” which is a more accurate depiction of what occurred.
The nonprofit sector has been making great strides in its ability to bring race to the forefront of our conversations. Race is being centered in spaces that many would have never imagined, such as conversations about the racist roots of our tax policies. If we want to work towards building a more equitable society, it is clear that we cannot make progress without confronting America’s legacy of racial injustice and white supremacy.
As the famous historian Eduardo Galeano wrote, “History is a prophet who faces backwards: because of what was, and against what was, it announces what will be.”