Once overlooked in classrooms, the Tulsa racial massacre is now seen as an ‘important’ lesson in Oklahoma schools


Katrina Eaton could hear the emotion in her 12-year-old son Isaac’s voice when he came home and spoke about what he had learned in school.

His teachers at Carver Middle School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had taught that day about a racial massacre in the city a century ago, when a white mob descended on Tulsa’s Black Greenwood neighborhood, killing hundreds, destroying many successful businesses and leaving thousands homeless. .

Education was also a lesson for Eaton.

“I mean, I learned more from what his school taught him,” said Eaton, who is white. “We all need to talk about the facts and what happened in the past.”

As the country prepares next week to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre – considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the country’s history – Oklahoma schools strive to ensure that residents grow up aware of the tragedy. The effort is an about-face after what many say are years of silence or insufficient education on the subject.

“We have to teach this and face the ugliness of what I think we’ve been too ashamed to talk about in the past,” said Joy Hofmeister, superintendent of the state’s education department. “We cannot turn our backs on the truth.”

Hofmeister said she grew up in Tulsa and only learned of the massacre as an adult.

The state has included the racial massacre in Tulsa in its academic standards since 2002, but the standards did not specify what teachers should teach and how they should teach it, spending little or no time at all. , on this subject.

A view of Greenwood Avenue looking north in 1938.Greenwood Cultural Center / Getty Images

That changed in 2019, when the state’s education ministry incorporated what and how into the requirements of state academic standards at different levels, Hofmeister said.

Since then, the Department of Education has also provided additional resources to help teachers deliver lessons.

Sam Dester taught 11th grade students in US history and an advanced placement in US history at Charles Page High School in Sand Springs this year.

He said he required students to view first-hand testimonies and photographs, such as articles from the American Red Cross and other organizations in the field. Then he asked them to share their thoughts, feelings and general reactions.

“When you see these photographs of what Europe looks like after WWII, I mean, in fact, these buildings that are just seashells,” he said. “Then they start to wonder how you can just jump on the freeway and you could be there in five minutes – it’s kind of like a shock wave.”

It supports the teaching of the massacre in schools and encourages teachers to teach it by including it in the academic standards of the state.

“I mean, the last time you take World History might be in 10th grade. For the rest of your life,” he says. “And so every time that story is reinforced for you, it really matters.”

Melani Ford didn’t hesitate to teach her preschoolers Greenwood this year at Cleveland Bailey Elementary School in Midwest City. She said she told them that a long time ago in Tulsa there was a town and some people set it on fire.

“I’m saying it happened here in Oklahoma and we haven’t recovered from it, but we’re trying to do better about it,” said Ford, 33, who is black.

Other teachers may be reluctant to introduce the neighborhood or the historic event to young children because it is “such a heavy topic” and they don’t know how to talk about those killed, Ford said.

But she said that for younger students, adults can start by presenting larger ideas of what happened and saying, “We’re not happy about that.”

“The story is not always good, but we have to know what happened and why it happened and know that we can do better,” she said. “To understand that, yeah, there was a group of people who did that, and we have to make sure we don’t repeat ourselves, I think it’s important to learn, no matter what age.”

But there are fears that some of the progress made in teaching a fuller version of state history may be erased.

Damaged properties burned down during the Tulsa massacre in June 1921.Oklahoma Historical Society / Getty Images

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt this month signed a law prohibiting the teaching of concepts or courses that may “cause discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because their race or gender. It also prohibits the promotion of concepts such as anyone, “because of their race or gender, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously”.

“Today more than ever, we need policies that bring us together, not that tear us apart,” Stitt said in a statement on Twitter. “As governor, I firmly believe that not a cent of taxpayer dollars should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans on their race or gender. This is what this bill supports for. public education. “

The law comes into force on July 1.

Teaching about the Tulsa and Greenwood District Racial Massacre continues to be a state academic standard in state and US history. Critics of the law worry about the “chilling effect” it might have on educators trying to teach complex historical topics involving race or gender.

“It’s safe to twist the knife into the wound, so to speak,” Eaton said of the moment of the law.

State Representative Monroe Nichols, who represents the District of Greenwood, said the law “puts enormous pressure on educators to do the right thing, but it’s unclear what that means.”

“I think the law was drafted in such a way that there is so much ambiguity,” said Nichols, who is black. Nichols resigned from the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission in 1921 this month due to the new law.

Speaking about his 13 year old son, who learned about the massacre in school, he said: “I think it is very important to understand these things not only to be educated about it, but to understand what it is. means, as far as we have to move forward. “

Naomi Andrews, mother of four in grades six to nine, said, “They are creating a world that is not based on reality. They are hiding information from the students and teachers who would teach it.”

Susan Foust, a recently retired librarian who helped teachers develop the fifth grade curriculum to teach racial massacre at Emerson Elementary School in Tulsa, agreed.

“It has to be said. And the teachers have to be the ones who teach it,” she said. “To tell us that we can’t talk about racism and that we have to make sure that no one feels guilty – I mean, you have to understand what human nature is and how communities have to support each other. “

CORRECTION (May 27, 2021, 11:20 p.m. ET): A news alert that was issued for this article misrepresented a new state law in Oklahoma. This would prohibit the teaching of material that would make students feel uncomfortable because of their race; that would not make the teaching of the Tulsa massacre permanent.

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