Education

Teachers Tackle 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Intensive Summer Institute

(Dr. Hill gives a lecture on the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre | Photo courtesy of Nehemiah Frank)

 

By Nate Morris

Hazel Smith-Jones, 99, was hardly three years old when she and her family were forced to flee their burning neighborhood in order to save their own lives. In recent interviews, she recounted how her family, refugees in their own city, were held for days at the fairgrounds after the community they knew and loved had been reduced to ash by white domestic terrorists.

Hazel was the last living survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre still residing in the city. She passed away this past March.

There are few documents remaining from the day on which Greenwood was burned to the ground. And much of the history of that day has withstood the test of time through eyewitness accounts like that of Ms. Jones. As the city nears the centennial anniversary of the massacre, efforts to preserve that history for future generations become increasingly vital.

 

img_3999(Photo courtesy of Nehemiah Frank)

 

 

On Monday June 11th, dozens of educators began an intensive, week-long summer institute designed to train and equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to lead their students in various lessons about the massacre in an effort to preserve this history for generations to come.

The Tulsa Race Riot* Teacher’s Summer Institute was formed in a partnership between Tulsa Public Schools, The University of Oklahoma’s Department of African and African American Studies, Facing History and Ourselves and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot* Centennial Commission in order to “inspire teachers to teach the Tulsa Race Riot* in ways that promote diversity, cross cultural dialogue, and racial healing.”

Over the course of the training, teachers will hear from experts ― including Hannibal Johnson, Esq., and Karlos K. Hill, Ph.D. ― on the history of the massacre. Teachers will also engage in intensive conversations about both the historical content of the massacre and the culturally competent methods to engage students in learning.

For teacher Deitrya Anderson from Monroe Demonstration Academy, the opportunity to be given access to rich, relevant resources to teach her scholars about the massacre is essential for city-wide healing.

“We are so separated,” she said, “that, if nothing else, I hope we can find some understanding that this event affected everyone. It still affects our city today.”

Anderson recalls an assignment that she gave her scholars last year after completing a unit on the massacre where they had to go home and poll their families on their knowledge of the event. Knowing that many schools didn’t effectively teach about the massacre and that the topic was hardly touched upon in textbooks, she wanted to provide her scholars an opportunity to share this information with their loved ones.

“Two of my kids came back to tell me that Ms. Jones was their great aunt,” said Anderson. “This incredible woman that these kids called ‘aunt’ was a survivor of the massacre and they didn’t know. It was very profound for me and for them.”

Written Quincey, poetry teacher at Tulsa Central Junior High and High School, quickly jumped at the opportunity to apply for the institute.

“As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘I have to check this out!’” he said. “I’ve been infatuated with the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre for a while now. I had to find out how I could keep the story going.

 

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(Photo courtesy of Nehemiah Frank)

 

For Quincey, this history strikes a deeply personal chord. He remarked about having to sit with the reality that much of the documented history of this monumental event had been destroyed.

“As academics, we’re entrusting intellectuals because so much is missing. It’s a frustrating but accurate reflection that history has been washed away,” he noted. “[This story] has to be told with honesty. It can’t be whitewashed or told in the spirit of a white savior complex.”

Instead, Quincey wants to empower his students to be able to “unearth answers to these questions” and to “just keep digging” when some of the answers have seemingly been intentionally buried.

Fifth graders at Dual Language Academy will also be engaging deeply in this content next year with the guidance of their teacher Verónica Díaz Rodríguez.

Díaz Rodríguez speaks passionately about using her role in the classroom to undo the socialization many of her students have experienced that perpetuate negative stereotypes of people of color. The majority of her students are of Latinx descent, but many don’t know about the incredible role that Hispanic and Latinx activists played in the Civil Rights Movement, because “many history books,” she said, “only focus on the accomplishments of white people.”

As a result, she has noticed that many of her students relate more to white people who resemble these figures in history than to their black and brown peers.

“The massacre and everything happening today affect all of my students of color,” she continued. “I want them to know this history so that they can all be united together as allies in the movement for social justice and equal rights.”

Ninety-seven years ago, one of the greatest terror attacks in the history of this country left more than 300 dead and caused more than $26 million (equivalent to $330 million today) in damage. Documentation of that history was either destroyed or erased from textbooks, and the event would be named a “riot” rather than a massacre in an attempt to downplay the true horror of the offense.

While several prominent black men were indicted for the attack, no white men were held accountable.

As survivors of the attack ― the true harbingers of the story ― continue to pass on, the burden of ensuring that this dark but critical piece of our history is preserved only gets heavier.

 

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(Photo courtesy of Nehemiah Frank)

 

Artists and teachers like Written Quincey understand this difficulty, acknowledging the city’s “silence of trauma” and noting that the massacre is still a difficult subject to face even almost a century later.

“You have an entire community of people still frustrated and upset,” he said. “So how do we envelope [this history], put it in a binder, and learn to teach it in four days? It’s hard.”

As the city moves toward the centennial anniversary in the year 2021, Quincey and others can sense the fervor around willingly taking this larger burden on.

“They owe it to Tulsa,” said Quincey, regarding TPS’s efforts to ensure that this unique opportunity came to fruition for its teachers. “There is an emotional debt, almost like reparations. This is a part of paying that back.”

Danielle Neves, Deputy Chief of Academics for Tulsa Public Schools, acknowledges these difficulties as inherent to the work.

“It’s always going to be a challenge, because you don’t want to simplify something that is complex and emotional.”

 

 

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(Photo courtesy of Nehemiah Frank)

 

For the first time, the district is pushing to go beyond the state requirements of teaching about the massacre in high school courses and providing tools and training for teachers at all grade levels. The goal of the district, according to Neves, is to ensure that teachers can act as ambassadors in leading the discussion, with an eye toward the future.

“As we continue this work, we are going to be empowering our students. They are going to graduate with mindsets and skills that empower them to support the improvement of our city. I am really excited about that.”

Then Neves added, quickly calling out the critical nature of the work, “We have to acknowledge what occurred [in the massacre] and understand that we are still living in the legacy of what happened. We have the opportunity to help teach our city about Greenwood in a way that helps us prepare for our future.”

Quincey feels the urgency building as well ― in his classroom in particular and in the community in general.

“People are really talking about things,” he said. “It’s almost like the spirit of the people, the ancestors in these pictures, the energy that happened in these streets ― it’s all coming back.  I can feel it. And it gives me goosebumps.”

* A riot is defined as “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” A massacre is defined as “an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people.”  This is was a massacre.

Additional resources for teaching the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre can be found through Facing History and Ourselves. For more information, visit www.facinghistory.org.

 


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Nate Morris is a contributing editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. He received his master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Morris is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area. He is an advocate for educational equity as well as racial and social justice throughout Tulsa and the nation as a whole.

 

 

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