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1921 tulsa race massacre oklahoma
A scene from the first episode of The Watchmen depicting the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Malee Craft is the daughter of a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And yet, despite growing up just outside Tulsa in Oklahoma City, Ms. Craft did not learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until several years ago.

Ms. Craft’s father, Mr. Hughes Van Ellis, was a baby when his family escaped from Tulsa in a covered wagon, with only the clothes on their backs. Mr. Ellis had five siblings who survived, including an older sister who remembered the horrors that took place on May 31 through June 2 1921. 

A hidden history

Noting that her father didn’t talk much about the past, Ms. Craft was shocked to learn, only 5 or 6 years ago, that he had survived. She was equally surprised — and outraged — that the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was not taught in the Oklahoma City public schools that she grew up attending.

Yet Tulsa’s shameful history is still minimized in public schools today. Oklahoma public school educational history standards mandate that students learn about what the standards call the “race riot,” only in 9th grade, and only briefly. 

However, public school teachers do have the freedom to teach a more thorough and comprehensive curriculum about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It was erroneously labeled a “riot” by insurance companies who did not want to pay claims to Black business owners following the massacre. 36 blocks of Greenwood, the prosperous “Black Wall Street” community comprised of entrepreneurs and innovative business owners, were burned to the ground. Businesses and homes were destroyed, while hundreds of innocent Black men and women were killed. 

The search for mass graves still has not produced evidence of what happened to those men and women, while descendants and relatives wait patiently for news of what happened to their family members. 

State standards refuse to call it a “massacre:

The Oklahoma public school standards were most recently updated in 2019. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission recommended that all public schools in the Tulsa area refer to the shameful event as a “massacre,” but such language was not mandated into the state history standards.

While many students learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as early as elementary school, one high school history teacher in Tulsa noted that in their class, only about 25% of students have more than a rudimentary understanding of Tulsa’s history of racism and white supremacy. The rest of their students either haven’t heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, or know it only by name. 

Malee Craft said she knows exactly why: systemic racism that still exists today. She also knows that only by confronting the past, can we begin the process of conciliation and reconciliation. In an interview with The Black Wall St. Times about her family, Ms. Craft stated, “It’s time that we learn about what has occurred to people here, people who were born here, grew up here, and continue to make contributions to this country.” 

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...

3 replies on “Oklahoma education standards label 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre a “riot””

  1. Good article! What will be the impact of HR Bill 1775 on the instruction of the Tulsa Race Massacre?

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