TULSA — Big changes will be made this fall statewide when educators will have the opportunity to learn how to teach one of the most significant events in Tulsa history.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre left its scar on the Greenwood District. Historians believe up to 300 people were killed, and a thriving black community was destroyed.
Remarkably, the chaos of that event was mostly swept under the rug for decades. Many still today have no knowledge of it.
However, all of that is expected to change this fall when schools add the massacre to curriculum statewide.
Currently, Tulsa Public School teachers are the only educators who have undergone training to bring the history of the 1921 Race Massacre into their classrooms, but now members of the Race Massacre Commission are working to open a workshop to teachers across Oklahoma.
North Tulsa's Greenwood district was thriving in the early 1920s. African American lawyers, doctors, and small businesses prospered. The area was referred to as "Black Wall Street.” and life was good.
"Oklahoma was seen as a paradise for African Americans to escape the deep south and come to Oklahoma, which became a state in 1907,” Hannibal Johnson, a member of the commission said.
But racial tensions were bubbling throughout the U.S. and were about to boil over in Greenwood.
It all started with a report of a young black man assaulting a young white woman in an elevator downtown. When calls came for the lynching of 19-year-old Dick Rowland, white mobs began to form, attacking black people and businesses.
Modern estimates state as many as three hundred people were killed - some possibly buried in mass graves. Hundreds more were hurt or detained, and more than 35 blocks were leveled.
The tragedy was barely acknowledged for generations. Johnson said that was no accident.
“What we typically get is a really antiseptic view of history that doesn’t cover a lot of the triumphs, particularly of people of color,” Johnson said.
The tragedy is now slowly making its way into Oklahoma classrooms. Thanks to the efforts of the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, educators are working to add more to the curriculum state-wide, even teaching the incident to children as early as pre-kindergarten.
"Our hope is that as we do this toward the centennial, we can turn that tragedy into triumph,” Sen. Kevin Matthews, Chair of the 1921 Race Massacre Commission said.”
Matthews is among those leading the charge. As the curriculum develops, he's worked with Tulsa Public Schools to offer teachers training on how to pass the knowledge to their students.
"You can’t teach the Tulsa Race Massacre without teaching the causes,” Candice Pierce, a 7th-grade teacher at Thoreau Demonstration Academy said.
Pierce took what she learned from the course and applied it to her language arts studies.
“These are images and articles that I printed out for my kids to analyze and dissect and go over,” Pierce said.
She included the article that started it all, which in bold letters called on the community to "nab" a young black boy accused of assaulting a white female elevator operator.
The basis of the lessons is to get the truth out about what happened in Tulsa in 1921, shaping not only history but the city's culture.
Students can do so through reading, writing, and visuals.
“If we are going to be a progressive city or progressive state and nation, we have to be truthful,” Matthews said. “This is our way of trying to get much of that truth out."
The truths of the massacre are also opening truths within the classroom.
“The quote on the board that I had when kids walked in was when I think about race, I feel ‘blank' because ‘blank,’ and it was really a chance for kids to unload some of those feelings,” Pierce said.
The curriculum delves into the brutality of the incident and the internment camps residents of Greenwood were placed in after white supremacists destroyed their community.
Topics difficult, but important.
“Having that honest dialogue is a good part of what we need to do to heal and make people feel that their point of view is being shown in the public and is being discussed because that’s what's not happening, that causes a lot of resentment,” Matthews said.
The hope, teachers said, is to teach students awareness and responsibility for their actions. They want students to know unbridled hate and misunderstanding can result in tragedy.
“I think it's extremely important for our kids to see this year in and year out, every year,” Pierce said.
A teaching course will be offered to teachers this summer. Educators are encouraged to use the curriculum and build on it. The commission said it hopes to eventually bring the history of the Race Massacre to college classrooms as well.
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