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GREENWOOD, Dist. — When Kristi Williams cut the ribbon for the first Black History Saturdays class at North Tulsa’s Edurec center on Saturday, it culminated a goal that was years in the making.
Years before Oklahoma’s public schools became a target for far-right conservatives amidst a nationwide campaign to ban books and limit discussions on race in the classroom, Williams, a descendant of Black Wall Street entrepreneurs, had a plan of her own.
“For three years I have really been wanting to create a space for community and family to come and learn,” Williams said during a press conference on Saturday, Feb. 4, ahead of the program’s first classes.
The free lessons are offered each month, with 120 spots available. The classes are split up by age and taught by eight teachers, including Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper and Tulsa University Assistant Professor Dr. Alicia Odewale. The five-hour seminars highlight the past, present and future of the Black experience to inspire the next generation.
“We want courageous teachers to continue to teach in our schools because that is legal, but in the meantime, we’re going to do the best we can to talk about the glorious history of African folks,” state Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) told reporters on Saturday.
Black History Saturdays is for the culture
Unlike many students in the U.S., Kristi Williams was privileged to have a Black male teacher, Mr. Roundtree, educate her about Black history as a junior at Memorial High School.
Williams wants to do for today’s youth and families what her former teacher did for her: empower students to learn and know that their history and culture is important, that it has value, and that it matters.
Like a lightbulb turning on for the first time, Williams noticed a shift in her own self-worth after being exposed to the full richness of Black history.
“Every time I walked in a room it mattered how I walked in; it mattered how I held my head up; It mattered what I spoke in public,” Williams told The Black Wall Street Times.
In a country that systematically discriminates against Black people, Williams seeks to fill in the gaps of Black history left by leaders who seek to deny racism’s very existence.
A new generation, a new White backlash to racial progress
Despite efforts by Oklahoma’s double-dipping State Superintendent and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters to get rid of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged systemic racism in the country’s legal system as recently as 1987.
In McCleskey v. Kemp, a death penalty case, Warren McCleskey argued that Georgia’s prosecutors were racially biased because they were more likely to seek the death penalty in cases involving White victims and Black suspects.
The Court allowed McCleskey’s execution to proceed via electrocution in 1991. It ruled that evidence of racial disparities isn’t enough to violate the Constitution.
For her part, Williams didn’t begin planning Black History Saturdays as a response to this White backlash against racial progress, but Oklahoma’s passage of House Bill 1775 certainly sent her efforts into hyperdrive.
Passed in 2021, HB 1775 limits teachers’ abilities to educate students on systemic racism or the continuing impacts of White supremacy. At least two school districts, Mustang and Tulsa, have faced discipline for allegedly violating the law.
“1775, it just really made me push to make this happen because we can’t learn about Black history in schools, nor can we teach it in public schools. So, it’s really important that we provide a space for our children to learn who we are,” Williams said.
“Because it’s important to know who we are, and not the narrative that society has given to us, because our history did not start with slavery.”
A blueprint for communities across the nation
Gathering brave teachers who are unafraid to teach the truth, and with support from Edurec Executive Director Charles Harper and Greg Robinson II of Standpipe Hill Strategies, Black History Saturdays brings power back to the community.
Michael Carter, a principal at KIPP OKC, formerly worked as a principal at Greenwood Leadership Academy. He travels down to Tulsa to help teach Black History Saturdays.
“In a moment when there’s a lot of hopelessness, we remember where our hope comes from. Our hope does not come from politicians,” Carter said. “We are our hope, and in this moment young people need to see what it looks like.”
Williams told The Black Wall Street Times that some teachers privately messaged her in support of the classes but declined to participate out of fear of having their teacher’s licenses revoked. It’s a fear reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement, when teachers were fired for expressing support for racial justice.
“And I understand that, but these teachers said yes with no questions,” Williams said. “And so it takes people like that, and I hope people see that as an example and use it as a catalyst to build Black History Saturdays in their communities across the country.”