Black Excellence

Curriculum Counts, The Importance of Teaching About the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot

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By Hannibal B. Johnson

May 31, 2018, will mark the ninety-seventh anniversary of the cataclysmic 1921 Tulsa Race Riot (the “Riot”), a man-made calamity more accurately described as a massacre, pogrom, holocaust, assault, or burning. This defining moment in Tulsa and American history, despite its significance as the worst “race riot” [or massacre] in America, remains a mystery to many and an unknown to many more.

We need to teach and learn about the Riot and, importantly, the community in which it occurred–about famed “Black Wall Street.” We need to know what happened and why. We need to remember so that the carnage and chaos Tulsa witnessed in the spring of 1921 never happens again. We need to hold people accountable; assign moral responsibility for the gross depredations and injustices perpetrated on Tulsa soil. If, and only if, we teach and learn about the Riot may we: (i) begin the process of reconciliation in earnest; (ii) recapture our too-often unacknowledged sense of shared humanity; and (iii) create for posterity a community more open, inclusive, and loving than the one in which we live today. Healing the still-festering wounds left by the Riot is possible, but we must incorporate this potent, painful, poignant legacy into school curricula in deliberate, systematic ways. Curriculum counts.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” Absent attention to substantive detail—to curricula—education fails in its core mission. When we sanitize our past, we stifle our ability to analyze it intensively and critically. We limit our capacity to learn and grow from our mistakes and missteps. We burden the future with our unresolved past.

The history surrounding the Riot is but one case in point. Some believe a conspiracy of silence enveloped the community in the wake of the Riot and muzzled it for decades thereafter. Tulsans scarcely spoke of this traumatic event privately, let alone publicly. No one dared to address it through education—pedagogically. Textbooks omitted references to this ugly chapter in our history.

The full dimensions of this epic tragedy, buried layers-deep in the City’s community consciousness, have only been recently realized. Arguably, that years-long obfuscation stunted Tulsa’s growth, both physically and spiritually. Our failure to come clean about Tulsa’s dirty little secret undermined the ability of the community to: (1) understand Tulsa’s role in the twentieth century American race drama; (2) build trust across the great chasm of race; and (3) use history as a catalyst for strategic, transformational change.

Just over two decades ago, things began to change. An eleven-member, legislatively-created 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission (the “Commission”), initially convened in 1997, changed the trajectory of Riot coverage and prompted a groundswell of public interest in how Tulsa has dealt with its past.

The State of Oklahoma charged the Commission with conducting an investigation, assessment, and evaluation of the circumstances surrounding the Riot. The State further tasked the Commission with advising the Governor, the Oklahoma Legislature, the Mayor of Tulsa, and the Tulsa City Council on appropriate action, including the propriety of reparations. The sometimes-contentious deliberations of the Commission drew world-wide media attention and rekindled local curiosity. In 2001, the Commission issued its award-winning final report. Among the Commission’s recommendations:

  1. Cash reparations payments to then-living Riot survivors;
  2. Cash reparations payments to Riot survivors (or their heirs) who lost property in the Riot;
  3. Establishment of a scholarship fund for Riot survivor heirs;
  4. Creation of business development incentives to spur development in the Greenwood District; and
  5. Construction of a substantial memorial/museum to commemorate Riot-related history.

Initially, the Commission’s endorsement of cash reparations drew particular attention. Indeed, early media focus on money payments dwarfed coverage of the other items and, more importantly, drowned out discussion of broader philosophical questions centering on the definition of and rationale for reparations. Those foundational questions about reparations merit additional consideration.

Reparations make amends for injustices. The idea behind reparations is to reconcile, repair, and restore that which has been damaged. Properly conceived, reparations help us bridge divides, bolster trust, and build community. By design, reparations move us toward hope, health, and healing.

How is it possible to satisfy the core definitional criteria for reparations—to make amends—and the fundamental rationale underlying reparations—reconciliation—without a viable effort to educate the community on the cause for which reparations are to be made? Surely, a baseline of knowledge about the event for which reparations are offered is the sine qua non of meaningful reparations. Broad-based support for Riot reparations hinges on community awareness about our history—the events that transpired before, during, and after the fateful event we know as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

The Commission’s reparations wish list contained no reference to curriculum reform, arguably the most meaningful, enduring form of reparations imaginable. This stunning omission undercut its other recommendations. No matter what else we may do, we will not be whole unless and until we own our past, process it, and integrate its lessons into our present and our vision for the future. Teaching and learning are essential to this process. As such, curriculum counts.

After years of deafening silence, the ghosts of Greenwood past emerged in full force as the Commission went about its business. Prominent newspapers, domestic and foreign, covered Tulsa’s monumental, historic tragedy. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Examiner, Le Monde, and The Times of London all featured stories about the Riot. So, too, did broadcast media. The History Channel, Showtime, and all the major networks produced Riot-related features. Our past has a way of haunting us despite our vigorous attempts to escape it.

As the media discovered, the Riot itself is only part of the fascinating Greenwood story. Indeed, one cannot fully appreciate the devastation wrought by the Riot without first understanding something of what was destroyed. Prior to the Riot, Greenwood District pioneers built a bustling black entrepreneurial Mecca dubbed “Black Wall Street.” That many of those same trailblazers rebounded and rebuilt after the Riot is a testament to human spirit. Like the Riot itself, these heroic, visionary men and women merit resurrection. That we have squandered the opportunity, time and time again, to learn about and from this rich past is an injustice unto itself.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the centrality of curriculum in addressing the Riot and its legacy. On October 12, 2008, the Tulsa City Council passed a Riot-inspired resolution supporting, among other things, the teaching of an appropriate curriculum to ensure the Riot is adequately covered in Oklahoma’s educational institutions as an historical event. It was a call for reparations. It was a call to action. It was a moment of hope.

We have made advances. Teaching about the Riot is now part of the State of Oklahoma’s “Priority Academic Student Skills,” proficiency expectations for various subjects and grade levels. Some ninth grade Oklahoma History textbooks now include a discussion of the Riot. Creative teachers have supplemented regular curricula with Riot-related materials and experiential activities.

The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation compiled supplementary curricular materials on Riot history, and has worked with Tulsa Public Schools to make them widely available to educators. The annual Reconciliation in America symposium, sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, brings together scholars and practitioners in an effort to spur racial reconciliation efforts. Curriculum reform is a core piece of the puzzle.

Ensuring that this rich history is taught throughout the state ranks among the key priorities of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission (“Centennial Commission”), the group convened to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Riot. The Centennial Commission, in collaboration with state and local leaders, intends to infuse the history of the Greenwood District into the core curriculum.

While these are encouraging developments, much work remains to be done.

Why not be honest and transparent? Why not infuse interdisciplinary teachings about the Riot into our curricula? Why not ask the provocative questions that expose the present manifestations of past horrors? For example:

History

  • Why did various demographic groups flock to Oklahoma in the early twentieth century?
  • What was the status of African-Americans in the early twentieth century?
  • What are “reparations”?
  • What are some examples of reparations in connections with historic injustices?
  • Should reparations be paid to the victims and descendants of victims of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921? Why or why not?

Sociology

  • What role did race play in the early twentieth century?
  • Describe the circumstances surrounding the internment of Tulsans during the Riot [massacre] and note other incidents of internment in our history. 
  • What is “urban renewal”?
  • What is de jure segregation?
  • Did integration help or hurt the Greenwood District?
  • How might we prevent an event like the Riot from happening again?

Economics

  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of a racially segregated economy?
  • Why was the Greenwood District known as “Black Wall Street?”
  • Who were some of the African-American pioneers in the Greenwood District?
  • What factors caused the Greenwood District to decline economically after its peak in the 1940s? 

Media/Journalism

  • What types of media existed in the early twentieth century?
  • What was the role of the media in the Riot?
  • What role do media play in race relations and in diversity and inclusion generally? 

Civics

  • What role did law enforcement play in the Riot?
  • What role did the Tulsa government play in the Riot?
  • What role did the State of Oklahoma play in the Riot?
  • What role did African-Americans, American Indians, and other minorities play in government, local, state, and national, in the early twentieth century?

Fine Arts

  • What is “jazz”? Discuss its origins and key artists.
  • What role did Tulsa and Oklahoma generally play in the development of jazz?
  • Discuss the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, including its founding, mission, and recent inductees.  

With a sense of purpose and a dose of creativity, Riot-related history may be woven into our curricular fabric. The consequences will be powerful, positive, and generation-spanning.

Do not be fooled. Curriculum counts. Our way forward begins with a look back. Through careful attention to curriculum, our backward glance will enrich and enliven our present lives and our shared vision for the future.

Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, consultant, and college professor. He writes and lectures about the history of the Greenwood District. His books include: Black Wall Street, Up from the Ashes, and Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. The National Black Theatre Festival selected Johnson’s play, Big Mama Speaks—A Tulsa Race Riot Survivor’s Story, for its 2011 line-up. Johnson’s book about the Freedmen, Apartheid in Indian Country?: Seeing Red Over Black Disenfranchisement, examines the story of the Freedmen, persons of African extraction affiliated with the Five Civilized Tribes through blood, affinity, and treaty ties, and their ongoing struggle for rights and recognition within Native communities.

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