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REOPENING THE INVESTIGATION As the search for gravesites of massacre victims resumes, Tulsa continues to face racial disparities By Blake Douglas
or decades after the 1920s, even to self-described Oklahoma history buffs like current Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a nearly forgotten tragedy laid buried in the city’s collective memory — and as Bynum would discover, much to his horror, the city itself. A century later and after numerous roadblocks to continuing the investigation, Bynum, several OU archaeologists and national scholars hope to bring a measure of justice to the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre and their descendants by educating the public and memorializing those killed in the event. Bynum, a Tulsa native, said he attended school in his home city until graduating from Cascia Hall in 1996. Despite years of education spent in the city whose residents witnessed and carried out one of the nation’s worst instances of racist violence, like many Tulsans, he’d never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until 2001, while at a town hall event for former Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune’s mayoral campaign. “We were at a candidate forum debate in North Tulsa, and somebody at that said, ‘This part of our city is the only American city that’s ever had bombs dropped on it by its own government,’” Bynum said. “I thought, ‘That’s crazy, there’s no way that there was a riot in Tulsa where bombs got dropped on people and I’ve never heard about this.’” While the exact extent of aerial bombardment during the massacre is unclear, eyewitness accounts of the event and later examination of available sources indicate multiple aircraft — though if private or government owned is unclear — played a role in the massacre. Tulsa may have become the first U.S. city to be bombed from the air. After further research, Bynum stumbled on the first mention he’d heard of the potential mass grave sites in the city. “When I learned right here in Oaklawn Cemetery there’s believed to be a mass grave for the race massacre but no one’s ever checked, again, I thought, ‘There’s no way there’s potentially a mass grave in the middle of our city and no one’s bothered to see if it’s really there or not,’” Bynum said. In 2001, when Bynum was first learning about the event, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 had published its report on findings from geological surveys and other research in the
area, hoping to uncover forgotten mass grave sites. Although geophysical surveys had been conducted into the late 1990s and early 2000s using radar equipment to identify subterranean disturbances, Bynum said the city had not proceeded with further excavation of sites of interest. In 2010, Bynum made another push to continue the investigation. “My colleague on the city council at the time, Jack Henderson … and I went to the mayor at the time Dewey Bartlett Jr. and presented all this and said, ‘We really think that the city ought to move ahead with this examination investigation,’” Bynum said. “The mayor would not move ahead with it. Under our form of government, only the mayor can direct city employees to do anything — city councilors can’t.” This event — and the racial disparities seen in Tulsa that continued to grow after the massacre and through the 20th century — inspired Bynum to eventually run for mayor, he said. “There was an article written in the Tulsa World ... about how the life expectancy disparity between kids growing up in North Tulsa and kids growing up elsewhere in the city was 11 years.” Bynum said. “I can’t imagine living in a city where you know that this disparity exists, and the city government isn’t doing everything it can to address it.” After the meeting with Bartlett, Bynum said he and Henderson made a pledge to act on the previous investigation’s findings if they ever had the chance. After Bynum defeated Bartlett in the June 2016 mayoral elections, he was eventually able to follow through. Kary Stackelbeck, Oklahoma state archaeologist and member of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey based at OU, said she was approached by the City of Tulsa in 2018 after Bynum reopened the investigation. The city sought to pick up where the previous investigation left off, Stackelbeck said, with most of the previous groups’ work focused on identifying sites of interest and performing preliminary geophysical surveys of the areas. In February 2000, on the weekend before excavation was set to begin at the Oaklawn Cemetery site, Kavin Ross — a member of the 1921 Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee and a de-
scendant of a victim of the massacre — said the dig was suddenly called off. “We had a lot of media showing up here in Tulsa at that time,” Ross said. “We got the word that Sunday night the excavation had been canceled. We weren’t ever given any real good reason why the excavation was canceled. … A lot of people who were opponents of the research and the race riot commission, they took the opportunity (of the indefinite postponement) to try and kill it.” Ross said some petitioned for the report to be completed before the commissions could move on with further excavations. After the report was published in 2001, however, the investigation did not continue. Scott Ellsworth — a native Tulsan, a scholar on the Tulsa Race Massacre and member of the Physical Investigation Committee — said the original investigation he was also a part of was “caught up in the politics of the era.” “I think it’s complicated. I think there were some people on the Riot Commission who just wanted to end all of this and end all the publicity to begin with. There were others who were of a conspiracy-minded bent — those who thought the (massacre) was a preplanned attack, things that I just thought were out to lunch,” Ellsworth said. “There were some people who were angry (because) all the attention given to the mass graves took away from efforts to win reparations. So I think it was a combination of factors.” Stackelbeck said the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey accepted Tulsa’s invitation to continue their work in 2019. Oklahoma Archaeological Survey
“IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE 100 YEARS AGO.”
been disturbed by examining the natural layering of soil around the site. While anomalies and at least a dozen coffins have already been identified at the Oaklawn Cemetery site, Stackelbeck said excavation and disinterment of any potential remains is not possible until a plan for reinterment is agreed on. “First and foremost, if there are individuals (from the graves) who are identified, and if you have living descendants, then under state statute those living descendants would be the ones who would actually have the right to determine their ultimate resting place,” Stackelbeck said. “Right now, that is actually a point of discussion with members of the community and with the city of Tulsa to determine that reburial process.” The Archaeological Survey has put forward a proposal to begin exhuming the remains by this summer, Stackelbeck said. A current “conservative” estimate of total individuals buried in the Oaklawn site is around 30 victims. Bynum said a current leading solution is temporary reinterment in Oaklawn Cemetery to allow the Archaeological Survey’s work to continue at Oaklawn and other sites of interest before long-term memorialization is discussed with the community, adding it was “very important” for the city to begin excavation work this summer. Bement said the team expects full skeletons to be recoverable from the gravesites. Remains roughly the age of the massacre sites are often in relatively good condition compared to many remains archaeologists work with, he said. Identifying the individuals, though, is limited by the number of Tulsans willing to donate their DNA to match against DNA extracted from the remains, Stackelbeck said. Ross said reparations will be a longer conversation, due to the role of the press and the city in covering up the event, but respecting the victims 100 years later is a proper place to start. Ross is a descendant of a massacre victim — his great grandfather, Isaac Evitts, who owned Isaac Evitts’ Zulu Lounge in Greenwood before the massacre. “Let’s be better Tulsans than the ones in 1921,” Ross said. “Let us go back in time and reset. … That’s a form of reparation — to go back and give these folks a proper burial, a proper burial site, a place of dignity and (to) celebrate their lives. Not only are our children watching us on this historic year, (but) the world is (also) watching us to see exactly how we do this.” Bynum said the city will have discussions with the Oversight Board and Tulsa residents as it decides where a memorial could potentially be placed. While not directly tied to reparations for the massacre, Bynum said he aims to address the wide racial disparities in Tulsa — particularly racial disparities “around economic opportunities” — by promoting economic development in North Tulsa, which contains roughly 41 percent of Tulsa’s Black population while only accounting for 17 percent of the city’s total population. In all other areas of Tulsa, 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In North Tulsa, however, over 35 percent of residents live in poverty, according to Human Rights Watch. The poverty rate of Black Tulsans, 34 percent, is almost triple the 13 percent of white Tulsans below the poverty line. The proposed body, the Tulsa Authority of Economic Opportunity, is intended to help institutionalize the initiative so the work can continue well through the end of Bynum’s mayoral term, he said — which is slated for 2024, as he’d previously stated he will not seek a third term. Other offices and plans
-G. T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa
ILLUSTRATION BY MEGAN FOISY/THE DAILY A figure-ground map of Tulsa highlights the Oaklawn Cemetery excavation site in relation to Greenwood District.
Senior Researcher Scott Hammerstedt and Director Amanda Regnier undertook new geological survey work with ground-penetrating radar in July 2020 to identify anomalies — both at sites previously surveyed during the earlier investigation and at new sites identified in the 20-year interim period. One early obstacle, Hammerstedt said, was the loss of some geophysical survey data from the original investigation. “We had the report that they’d wrote and an article that they wrote. The problem is that one of the lead people involved in that from OU passed away,” Hammerstedt said. “We don’t have any of the raw data, but we have some of the reports to work on.” Hammerstedt and Regnier helped survey the Oaklawn Cemetery site by collecting ground-penetrating radar images across the site. “What we do with the ground-penetrating radar is collect data in sort of zig-zag patterns, about 50 centimeters apart,” Hammerstedt said. “If you see a little anomaly that shows up in one profile, you might think it might be just to be a rock or something like that. But if you go through it and you pick it up in the same place on three or four passes, and it looks like it might be body size, for example, then that’s kind of the kind of thing that clues you in.” Senior researcher Leland Bement said scanning for anomalies is deceptively simple on the surface, as whether it is a thousand-year-old or hundred-yearold site, archaeologists can determine if earth has
created during his tenure, like the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity and the Resilient Tulsa Strategy, have similar goals. During Bynum’s first term as mayor, he said Tulsa attracted over $1 billion to the North Tulsa area in corporate investment and job creation. However, he is cognizant of the need for nonprofit and small businesses to also flourish to help the area’s economic growth. “We work with local nonprofits to make sure that people that live in the area are trained with the skills to compete for those (new) jobs and they don’t just watch these buildings go up and people from other communities come in,” Bynum said. “We want to do more on the small business and entrepreneurial side. All of this is really targeted at building wealth in that area. If you can do that, it solves so many of the other problems that are leading to that life expectancy disparity.” While the archaeologists said in many ways, the race massacre excavations are simply another day of fieldwork and analysis, they rarely deal with excavations related to specific historical events. The relative recency of the massacre, and working alongside descendants of the victims, can be especially emotional. “It’s not to say that, as scientists, we’re completely devoid of emotion when we do this. This can be definitely very emotional, and I would say absolutely … having members of the public Oversight Committee who are by our sides while we’re doing this work and making these discoveries — it’s extremely emotional,” Stackelbeck said. “It really brings home the importance of what it is that we’re out there doing.” Ross said while he is happy to see the work finally being pushed forward, he feels Tulsa was stalled on its way to becoming a better community when the original investigation was ended prematurely. “Over 20 years ago, had we uncovered what we could have uncovered so far, how would Tulsa look as a people today, had we (taken) the necessary steps,” Ross said, “and returned to the past on our way to build a better future?” With renewed efforts from state legislators and Tulsa Public Schools to ensure the accuracy of teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre, Bynum said he feels the centennial push to fully tell this tragic chapter of the city’s history may have lessons for future generations of Tulsans. “I hate the fact that no one did this for 99 years. This should not be something that the City of Tulsa is doing now. It should have been done 100 years ago, and the fact that it wasn’t is, I think, a great point of embarrassment for us as a city,” Bynum said. “You will not have kids growing up like I did, never hearing about this in school, ever again.” How close he feels the city came to burying the tragedy, Bynum said, is an eerie reminder that serves as motivation for Tulsa and the United States to continue honestly confronting their racial history. “We were really, I think, probably one generation of historians and survivors removed from this potentially being completely erased,” Bynum said. “That you have every future generation of Tulsa kids that grows up learning the lessons of this event will hopefully build a better community and a better state as a result.”
SNAPSHOTS OF HIDDEN HISTORY
OU professor seeks to reveal full depiction of trauma with photographic history contextualizing images of massacre
By Ari Fife
nce a gathering place for the city’s Black community, Mount Zion Baptist Church stands empty with smoke billowing from it, shortly before being burned to the ground, in an image from the Tulsa Race Massacre. Today, it continues to act as a place of community for its members, who meet in a large building similar to the one in the image. But its members haven’t forgotten its history. Sharlene Johnson, chair of Mount Zion’s joint board, said when the church started in 1909, it was held in a one-room frame building. Construction began on a larger building, on the same land the church is on now, in 1916. The first services were held in the new building in April 1921 — two months before white Tulsans would burn it to rubble. Sharlene Johnson said all of the Greenwood District was attacked because of racism and bigotry, but Mount Zion was a special target because white rioters wrongly believed it to be the headquarters and ammunition storage for the Greenwood community. She said she learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre growing up in Chicago, but when she moved to Oklahoma in 1977, she found that event wasn’t taught locally. “This is your history, it’s national history,” Johnson said. “But it wasn’t taught here, it was ignored for years and years. … This is a history that you can’t keep silent.” After half a century without pictures of the massacre readily available, OU professor Karlos Hill compiled images like the ones of Mount Zion and others as part of his latest project, “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History.” His photobook is centered on the experiences of Black survivors and is intended to contextualize images taken by white participants. In his research on the massacre, Hill has seen countless images depicting destruction, damaged buildings and, simultaneously, the wrecking of the hopes and dreams of a prosperous Black community. But in his mind, one stands out from the rest — an aerial image of a smoky sky above a smattering of buildings, with a caption scratched across the bottom of the picture. “This photograph really encapsulates for me what actually had occurred,” said Hill, who serves as the African and African-American Studies department chair at OU. “And so it was certainly a massacre. We believe that nearly 300, if not more, Black people died as a result of the violence. But for me, the violence was about ‘Running the Negro out of Tulsa,’ it was about expelling Black people, not just killing them but putting fear and expelling them from Tulsa.” Hill — who’s one of the professors of OU’s The Tulsa Race Massacre: 100 Years Later course — said his “scholarly mission” is to discuss the massacre
in a way that honors victims, survivors and their descendants. “Terroristic violence, such as what occurred in Tulsa, has been central to the Black experience,” Hill said. “We can’t understand ... anything about the Black experience really, without understanding the experience of terror and how terror shaped the community.” Scott Ellsworth is a University of Michigan Department of Afroamerican and African Studies professor, and the author of “Death in a Promised Land,” the “first-ever comprehensive” Tulsa Race Massacre history, who reviewed Hill’s proposal. He said both Tulsa’s Black and white communities covered up the Tulsa Race Massacre after the fact, but for different reasons. He said white Tulsans concealed the event because they knew it would harm the city’s image, while, like Holocaust survivors, Black Tulsans didn’t want to talk about the history because it was so painful. He said many Black residents didn’t first learn about the massacre until the 1970s and ’80s despite having family members who endured the loss of their property and livelihoods because of it. Ellsworth grew up in Tulsa and experienced the coverup firsthand. He said, as a child, he remembers hearing adults talking about bodies floating down the Arkansas River and machine guns atop buildings, but adults’ tones would always shift when he entered the room. He didn’t first learn about the massacre until he was about 12. “On the one hand, the people who wanted to suppress the story, they were very successful,” Ellsworth said. “And there’s no question about it. But along the way, as John Hope Franklin said, the city lost its sense of honesty, and it lied about itself and its past, and we are finally back, yet we are now recovering that and recovering our sense of honesty.” Hill said in many cities that have experienced racial violence, residents feel a level of shame about what occurred, especially on their watch. He said, in Tulsa, city leaders were part of the “conspiracy of silence” — though, in the aftermath of the massacre, some public officials expressed remorse and promised reparations for victims, according to “Death in a Promised Land.” “There was a sense of ‘What have we done? How could we have done this,? We are going to make this right,’” Hill said. “And so we know that that happened, that these words were uttered. But then later, we know that there were these multiple attempts … to suppress the history, and so I think that grows out of the fear of accountability, as well as the kind of shame connected to having been involved and having allowed what occurred to occur.” For decades, there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or events to recognize the
The newly completed Mount Zion Baptist Church on fire during the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.
Black men are marched out of Greenwood with their hands up near the end of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921.
ALL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY KARLOS HILL
A photograph shows a burning cityscape during the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921.
Tulsa Race Massacre as white Tulsans attempted to improve the city’s public image. The Tulsa Tribune removed its May 31 front-page story from its bound volumes, and experts found police and state militia milita records of the massacre were also missing. Hill said, in the attempted concealment, some of the most incriminating photos — like the ones depicting the dumping of bodies in mass graves — were destroyed. He also said it was impossible for city leaders and police officers to have been unaware of the digging of mass graves, as the city was under martial law from 11:30 a.m. June 1 to 5 p.m. June 3. “And now that, 100 years later, we’re still trying to figure out where (mass graves) are just speaks to the complicity of city authorities and all those involved,” Hill said. “And we still don’t know. … This is still being suppressed.” But Ellsworth said, just as a lack of photos helped conceal the Tulsa Race Massacre, the availability of those pictures today can help unequivocally prove the event happened. “There was nothing that provided more evidence for the massacre than these photos,” Ellsworth said. “So I think that’s one reason they were very, very hard to come by. And we’ve now come full circle with professor Hill’s book. For the first time ever in book form, there’s going to be this magnificent collection of massacre photos. And there’s no way that someone can look at this collection and say that this didn’t happen.” Johnson said reparations were never promised to the church, even though Mount Zion pastor Reverend R.A. Whitaker invited members of Tulsa’s city council and the city’s police chief to the ruins of the building to confirm there were no weapons hidden in it after the violence. The building was rebuilt in 1952, but the funding for construction was raised by congregants and donors, not granted by insurance companies. Hill said his book doesn’t argue for reparations specifically, but it supports them. “A big part of the reason why Black people did not receive restitution in 1921 is that city leaders framed it as a riot,” Hill said. “And certainly the insurance companies framed it as a riot, and that shielded them from having to pay for the damages that Black residents and ... Black businesses suffered.” Hill said he chose the project because he predicted it could be done by the 100th anniversary, but the research was slow. He said the work has consisted mostly of archival research, using resources made available by the University of Tulsa, the Tulsa Historical Society, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, the Greenwood Cultural Center, the John Hope Franklin Center, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Hill said he also used information from a database created by the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, which contained transcriptions of interviews with about 80 survivors collected between 1997 and 2001. He also said he drew from Mary Parrish’s “Events of the Tulsa Disaster” — the first survivor account collection, originally published in 1922 — and smaller oral history projects. Research on the book started in 2017, Hill said, but he started focusing on the project more heavily in 2018. He said the book was released March 18. “I am happy because I feel like … the book is really a community-engaged piece of scholarship,” Hill said. “And it’s leaning in and bearing witness to experiences of survivors and their descendants. Of all the writing that I’ve done … this is probably the most important thing — and probably will remain for a long time the most important thing that I’ve written.” Hannibal Johnson, an attorney and Tulsa Race Massacre expert who reviewed a draft of Hill’s book,
said he believes the photographic history covers the event from a different perspective than many other books do. “For me, the overarching story is a story about people, it’s about the indomitable human spirit,” said Johnson, who works on Greenwood Avenue — once a central part of Black Wall Street. “It’s about a Black community in Tulsa. The massacre is an event that happened in the context of community. It’s an event that’s emblematic of this historical racial violence throughout the U.S.” Johnson said there’s value in making as many Tulsa Race Massacre resources as possible available to the public. “We need multiple touchpoints to this history that can engage with people at various ages and stages and learning styles,” Johnson said. “And so for some people, pictorial narrative is actually quite helpful for visual learners, people who want to get a quick overview of the history. It’s a really important way to tell the story.” Hill said there’s a popular assumption that if people are educated on past acts of racism, it will be easier to prevent racism in the future. “I think awareness is key (and) I think education is essential,” Hill said, “but it’s not enough. … The way in which you make sure that these things don’t happen again is you hold people accountable for what occurs.” Hill referenced a quote by Ida B. Wells, a journalist and activist whose work in part focused on lynching, stating “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” “That was her way of not just holding the city accountable but holding Black people accountable,” Hill said. “If you want lynching to end, then we as a people have to make the cost of taking a Black life so high that white lynch mobs decide that it’s not worth the risk.” Hill said while he thinks forms of racial violence have shifted since then, the same concept applies — disincentivizing and discouraging participation in acts of racism, and holding those who do participate accountable. A century after the massacre, Ellsworth said he thinks opinions of the event in Tulsa are still divided. He said he thinks the Black community wants to highlight the Greenwood District’s status before the massacre and how it was rebuilt. He also said the United States is in an “age of re-evaluation,” allowing for more discussion of painful aspects of its history. “Statues are getting replaced, who our heroes are are being questioned, new heroes are being suggested,” Ellsworth said. “So we’re undergoing this tumultuous period where we’re trying to wrestle with our pasts and understand it, and that’s vital that we do that. It’s very important that we do it. But that’s not to say it’s not difficult, so those difficulties are certainly mirrored in Tulsa.” The effects of the violence, depicted in Hill’s book, continue to affect Tulsa’s Black community. The Greenwood District has suffered from the creation of Interstate 244 in 1975, Sharlene Johnson said, which split the area down the middle and again imperiled Mount Zion. She said Greenwood — which was 35 square blocks at its height — exists as only about a quarter of a block now. However, Johnson said Mount Zion continues to remain active in the community. “The church is still thriving,” Johnson said. “But that’s through the grace of God. … Our theme is ‘the church that faith built,’ and because of faith, we’re still there.”
REPARATIONS Justice for Greenwood Foundation seeks to close ‘racial disparities, economic inequalities’ in lawsuit
O.W. Gurley builds his first business — a rooming house — and names the road in front of the house “Greenwood Avenue” after a city in Mississippi.
1909 Mt. Zion Baptist Church is founded by a Bible study group led by the Rev. Sandy Lyons.
1921 By this year, 191 businesses are operating in Greenwood over a 35-block area: doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, Dunbar and Booker T. Washington schools, Ricketts’ Restaurant, The Williams’ Dreamland Theater, Mann’s Grocery Stores, The Stradford Hotel, The Tulsa Star, The Dixie Theatre, the Williams Building, the Oklahoma Sun, drug stores, cafes, barbershops and beauty salons. Greenwood is home to over 10,000 Black people.
essie Benningfield Randle was just 6 years old when she watched her hometown go up in flames. Now at 106 years old, her testimony may make way for reparations to be paid. On May 31, 1921, an angry mob of white Tulsans stormed the prosperous Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After the massacre, the people of Greenwood rebuilt the town without any financial assistance from the City of Tulsa. Randle, known as “Mother Randle” to the Justice for Greenwood Foundation — a group that advocates for reparations to be paid to the massacre survivors and descendants — stated in the February lawsuit that the events of the massacre have caused her to experience “emotional and physical distress that continues to this day.” The lawsuit also states that Tulsa government officials are “enriching themselves by promoting the site of the massacre as a tourist attraction.” Damario Solomon-Simmons is the lead lawyer on the case at Solomon-Simmons Law. New York-based international law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel has also joined the legal fight for reparations. The lawsuit’s lead plaintiffs are Randle and other massacre survivors Viola “Mother” Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis Sr. Six descendants of survivors are also included in the case along with the Tulsa African Ancestral Society and Historic Vernon A.M.E. church. The suit alleges that the acts committed during the massacre were “unreasonable, unwarranted and/or unlawful” and have created public nuisance to this day. The lawsuit claims the defendants — the City of Tulsa and other officials — have unjustly received benefits from the massacre, and therefore, the plaintiffs should recover those benefits. The lawsuit is seeking a court order, via Oklahoma’s Public Nuisance Law, to require the City of Tulsa to pay reparations to lessen the “racial disparities, economic inequalities, insecurity and trauma” caused by the massacre. The suit cites a quote from Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, when he said, “In Tulsa, the racial and economic disparities that still exist today can be traced to the 1921 race massacre.” Bynum previously spoke about reparations in
February 2020 in an interview with News Channel 8 in Tulsa. “I know people have a lot of opinions on both sides when it comes to reparations, but the thing I’m focused on is not just cash payments to people,” Bynum said in the interview. “I think getting in and trying to make cash payments to people, it divides the community on something we should be united on.” Jericka Handie, an OU journalism alumna and former OU Daily staff member, is the media and community outreach assistant at the Justice for Greenwood Foundation in partnership with Solomon-Simmons Law. “(Those who work with the Justice for Greenwood Foundation) fundamentally believe that we have a responsibility to affect change. With the history of Greenwood and it being so horrific, we see how vile it truly is and how financial compensation was really never given,” Handie said. “And that’s just not right. We cannot have peace and harmony and equality and all these things until we actually have restorative justice.” Handie said the Greenwood Rising project — an intended memorial for the massacre and historical education site — is an empty gesture without proper reparations from the Tulsa government. Justice for Greenwood shared in a March 11 tweet: “Dear Greenwood Rising: We don’t want your Tulsa Race Massacre-themed Disneyland. Shiny buildings, museums and coffee shops won’t make us forget how you and the City of Tulsa refuse to acknowledge the inherent anti-Blackness Tulsa is built upon.” Handie said the city should be held accountable for its failure to restore what Greenwood lost in the massacre. “What you ignore, you empower,” Handie said. “And for a long time, Tulsa city officials have given power to profit and greed, rather than the community itself and specifically Black Tulsans.” OU professor Rilla Askew, who teaches a section in OU’s Tulsa Race Massacre Presidential Dream Course, said the long history of racial injustice in America illustrates exactly why reparations are needed for the massacre. Askew, who authored “Fire in Beulah,” a novel based on the events of the massacre, has spent her career studying the institutions in which racism operates in America.
1925-1942 MAY 31-JUNE 1, 1921 The Tulsa Race Massacre leaves a once-thriving area decimated — 1,256 houses are burned, $1.8 million of insurance claims are filed against the City of Tulsa, and none are paid, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church — which had been finished just months before — is demolished.
Greenwood’s Renaissance: Most businesses are rebuilt by this point. By 1942, Greenwood boasts nearly 250 businesses, which exceeds the number of businesses from before the massacre.
1952 Mt. Zion Baptist Church finishes its rebuilding and is dedicated.
By Jacinda Hemeon Askew said the racial climate of the United States directly led to the massacre. From the first ships carrying enslaved people arriving in America in 1619 to the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Askew said the oppression of Black Americans is a systemic issue. Askew said this is evidenced by the continuous unjust treatment of Black Americans even after slavery was abolished. Jim Crow laws, segregation, voting restrictions and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan all contributed to the systemic othering and oppression of Black people. In 1921, the Greenwood District was booming with so much business, it became known as “Black Wall Street.” Amid the racial tension, lynchings and terrorization from the KKK, Greenwood’s success was a bright spot in a deeply racist society. But on May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, entered an elevator with Sarah Page, a white woman. Page exited the elevator screaming and rumors began to swirl. The following day, an angry white mob had formed, claiming without evidence that Rowland had sexually assaulted Page. By that night, the white mob descended on Greenwood. For two days, white Tulsans burned and looted the district while terrorizing and murdering the Black residents of Greenwood. The case against Rowland was dismissed after Page refused to press charges, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Askew said after historically coming out on top due to colonizing and oppressing other cultures, white people resented Greenwood’s economic success. “(It was) the wealth that was created and the jealousy of the success of Greenwood and other Black towns,” Askew said. “White folks weren’t happy. They just weren’t happy.” The violence of the massacre has often been glossed over in historical retellings, something Askew said contributes to the lack of support for reparations. Oklahoma’s schools have seen various levels of required race massacre education, with new standards passed first in 2002, then in 2012, 2019 and most recently in 2020. In addition to the lack of historical education, Askew said some news organizations originally tried to hide the truth of the massacre, and Black news organizations were some of the only outlets that covered the event. “It’s the problem that has always been the problem,” Askew said. “We simply don’t want to own the truth of our past.” Askew said reparations are needed for Greenwood to properly move forward. “It’s about the legacy that has endured for 100 years, that has made the challenges for the citizens of Greenwood and the Black citizens of Tulsa, and you can extrapolate this to the whole country,” Askew said. “This is about equity — not just equality, but equity. And we haven’t dealt with that.”
Handie, who attended Jenks High School — just an 18-minute drive from Greenwood — said the massacre was not mentioned at her school until she asked her teacher about it in class. “I brought it to the attention of my teacher, and he maybe gave one or two sentences about it and called it a riot,” Handie said. “A riot implies that there was a fight on both sides, so I could already tell he didn’t have the real history to tell us.” Handie said her experience was completely different at OU when Dr. Karlos Hill hosted a webinar series on the history of Greenwood. Hill is the African and African-American Studies Chair at OU and a professor for the OU Presidential Dream Course about the massacre. Hill said he had studied the massacre early in his career, but did not understand the extent of the devastation until he moved to Oklahoma in 2016 and visited Tulsa. Hill visited the Vernon A.M.E. church — one of the plaintiffs of the lawsuit — and said while the events of the massacre were 100 years ago, the wounds it caused are still present. “If you go down into the basement and you touch the pipes and the beams, you can feel, you can still see where the fire was and how it’s scarred,” Hill said. “There’s all these physical reminders within the church.” Hill said that one argument against reparations is that the massacre happened too long ago for reparations to be useful. “These institutions within this community are still feeling the effects and (are) still navigating them,” Hill said. “This issue isn’t dead, even though the principals who initiated it and those who have been harmed, most of them, are gone.” Hill said the massacre was an act of terrorism, and the U.S. has a history of paying reparations to people affected by terrorism — so long as those people are not a group of Black Americans. Hill said that when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, the country did not hesitate to help the victims and their families. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 raised $7 billion in the aftermath of the attacks. “Whites aren’t opposed to reparations when it’s benefiting other white people,” Hill said. “But when it’s people of color who have been harmed by racist policies, racial violence or racism, all of a sudden reparations, there are all these excuses.” Although Hill supports the fight for reparations in Tulsa, he said it may be difficult to win them through the court system. Hill said that historically, reparations are granted through legislative action, not court-ordered action. Similar to the Tulsa Race Massacre, Florida experienced its own act of racist terrorism. The Rosewood Massacre of 1923 took place in Rosewood, Florida, when a white mob burned down a rural Black town. The bill that was passed to grant reparations to those affected by the Rosewood Massacre avoided using the word “reparations” and instead based the request for
financial compensation on “property value.” The bill passed with bipartisan support. Although Greenwood was forced to pick itself up and out of the ashes on its own after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Hill said reparations are still needed for the town to have a full and fair opportunity to recover from the tragedy. “It’s a true shame, because people often ask me, ‘What could Black Wall Street have been, had it not been destroyed?’ But I think an even better question is, ‘What could Black Wall Street have been if the city had helped to rebuild, if the insurance companies had paid restitution?’” Hill said. “‘What could Black Wall Street have been, even after it had been destroyed?’” Handie said Hill’s way of teaching inspired her to pursue a career as an activist. “There are not enough safeguards in place to protect our marginalized communities, especially our Black communities, who helped build this country and built this country for free,” Handie said. “I wanted to be on the front lines in whatever way I could.” Handie said the movement for reparations is gaining steam due to organizations like Justice for Greenwood raising awareness about the massacre, but some people still have reservations. “There’s a lot of City of Tulsa officials and people in Tulsa who are pushing against our movement … and not stepping up to the plate to seek justice and reparations for the people who have suffered for a long time,” Handie said. “We’re trying to apply pressure in the ways that we know so we can try to get them on board because we’ve seen so much pushback.” Sen. James Lankford, who serves on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, was asked to resign from the commission in January after he attempted to dispute the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Lankford was accused of invalidating the votes counted in predominantly Black populations. Lankford did not resign and instead issued an apology letter. “What I did not realize was all of the national conversation about states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan was seen as casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit,” Lankford wrote in the letter. Handie said the devastation the Greenwood District suffered and still grapples with today has been drastically overlooked. When Greenwood was at its most profitable point, Black-owned businesses lined the streets. But following the massacre, 35 blocks and over 1,000 homes were left in ruins. “The community is struggling, the victims and descendants saw their livelihoods destroyed, and we’ve seen it culminate into their lives now with not being able to have that financial prosperity, those wealth-creating assets,” Handie said. “We’ve seen them struggle for so long, and we’d love for the city of Tulsa to put the community over profit and greed and actually use their legislative powers and voice to provide this compensation for them, because it’s way overdue.”
1990-2004 1961-1975 The Urban Renewal program clears parts of Greenwood to make way for the Inner-Dispersal Loop highway, which is finished in 1975. The highway bisects Greenwood. Tulsa also participates in the federal Model Cities program, which clears out 84.6 acres of Greenwood, which had been home to 2,200 people and dozens of businesses.
Tulsa Development Authority administers voluntary buy-outs for the few remaining North Greenwood homes.
1982-1990 The University Center at Tulsa is built on land where commercial buildings and multi-family housing units once stood. For the project, 115 acres from the Near Northside neighborhood in Greenwood are cleared.
TODAY Large swaths of empty land still remain where businesses and houses once stood, as the city ran out of money to develop the land it had claimed. Downtown Tulsa continued to thrive as the Greenwood District was left in a state of disarray. Black Wall Street now host few Black-owned businesses and the construction site for the Greenwood Rising museum.
‘I DREAM OF GREENWOOD’ OU lecturer, student choreograph dance film centered around perspectives of children who survived
By Sam Tonkins PHOTOS PROVIDED BY GAYLE CURRY & ILLUSTRATIONS BY RACHEL LOBAUGH
s Marie Casimir read eyewitness accounts of the Tulsa Race Massacre, she was drawn to the stories of children watching their world burn. “They might have been aware on some level, but some of the younger kids, to not be aware and then one day to have your entire community burned down and people killed was just mind-blowing,” Casimir said. Casimir, who is an adjunct lecturer in OU’s African and African American Studies Department and currently teaches African dance, was researching the massacre to choreograph the dance film, “I Dream of Greenwood,” which premiered as part of the OU Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial commemorations in April. While researching, she found Eddie Faye Gates’ book “Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street,” which became a major inspiration for the dance. Gates was one of the lead interviewers in the 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 and spent over 20 years interviewing survivors, most of whom were children at the time of the massacre. “We brought the text into the rehearsal space,” Casimir said. “We would read it separately. We’d come back. We’d read a few sentences, and then we would move.” By looking at the massacre through the
eyes of the children who survived it, the dance film connects the massacre to the modern day and to children who are continuing to watch acts of racial violence unfold. To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, OU worked throughout the 2020-21 academic year to provide events and projects to educate students and community members about the massacre, including public lectures, book drives and museum exhibits, according to the OU Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial commemoration’s website. One of the main events was “Reflecting on the Past, Facing the Future: The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Symposium,” which featured several panel discussions, a keynote talk by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and the premiere of the dance film. Daniel Simon, the assistant director and editor-in-chief of World Literature Today, was on the coordinating committee for the OU centennial commemoration alongside Kalenda Eaton and Karlos Hill from the African and AfricanAmerican Studies department at OU. Simon said the symposium was a hybrid event, with limited in-person attendance April 8 and an online schedule April 9. The idea for the centennial symposium came from Hill’s speech at a student rally in response to the blackface incidents in 2019, Simon said. In an opinion piece on the OU Daily’s website, Hill stressed the importance of communities coming together to prevent hate speech and make a more inclusive community. “I was really moved by his words of historical memory and solidarity and witness,” Simon said. The two began planning, and Eaton joined the committee, working to create an event that would include OU’s Norman campus as well as the Tulsa and Oklahoma City campuses. While planning the symposium, Simon reached out to Casimir, who had previously choreographed a performance for the 2018 Neustadt Festival. Simon said the dance was a way to
connect the symposium with the arts. Casimir, along with second-year modern dance performance graduate student J’aime Griffith, served as co-choreographers, and OU professor of dance Leslie Kraus was the dramaturg. Kraus said that defining her role was difficult, but “dramaturg” felt appropriate. While her work with the project did not focus on researching the context for the performance as a dramaturg normally would, Kraus said she felt privileged to help the project in any way she could, like booking rehearsal spaces or being “an eye in the room” giving feedback. “I honestly feel very, very lucky for Marie to ask me to be a part of the process and to witness these stories and to listen to them and to be a part of the creative process,” Kraus said. “I’m humbled by it.” Casimir and Griffith were also the only dancers in the film. While Casimir said that she would normally have four or five dancers for a project like this, a smaller cast was more ideal. “It felt like we wanted to create a bubble where we felt safe and good and also could have a deeper engagement,” Casimir said. After reading Gates’ book, Casimir said the team decided to look at the massacre through the eyes of children. “When we talk about the massacre, I don’t know that we think about the young people who were traumatized or who may not have been aware of the racial tension,” Casimir said. The team began working last summer, reading books, finding stories and watching videos. Griffith said she watched a video of a survivor describing how she initially thought the gunfire was fireworks until her mother explained to her the truth. “So she brought her to the window to show her, and she was like, ‘No, that’s your country. That’s your country shooting at you,’” Griffith said. “And that really stood out to me.” The dance tells the story of two sisters who were separated during the massacre, Simon said.
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Casimir said the dance uses the idea of dreamscapes and passing in and out of nightmares to capture the traumatizing nature of the massacre. And, while the dance examines the massacre’s destruction, it also looks at Greenwood before as the center for a prospering community. “When we talk about Black pain and Black suffering, we forget to talk about the humanity and Black joy,” Casimir said. Originally, the committee intended to have an in-person dance performance, but COVID-19 moved things online in the form of a dance film. Casimir said that change ended up being an excellent artistic choice. “It’s like the practical always leads to the creative, and then we thought that we can actually tell, I think, perhaps an even better story in this format,” Casimir said. Griffith said the film allowed the dancers to be recorded in different places, using different kinds of scenery to tell the story. The dance was filmed in Martin Park Nature Center in OKC, Casimir said. The film enabled the dancers to tell a story more quickly because the performance can be edited, Casimir said, but it also allowed the story to be told in a more abstract way that gives the audience more emotional information. “They’re able to witness and feel connected to just the terror that these children might have felt, and also (have) an understanding that yeah, life existed before and after the massacre and to not focus on just that one event,” Casimir said. Kraus said the film also allowed a wider audience to see the performance and to be impacted by the story Casimir and Griffith tell, and she said in an interview before the symposium that she was hopeful it would bring communities across the state together. “I think it’s going to be a pretty incredible event for all of Oklahoma,” Kraus said. Griffith said she hopes people not only absorbed emotions from the performance, but also the desire to learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre. The thriving community that existed in Greenwood before the massacre gave her a sense of pride, Griffith said, and she wants others to be able to experience that same emotion. The committee also worked with Norman Public Schools to create a curriculum tiein for classrooms. Tenth-grade students
watched the film as a part of their English and language arts classes, said Stephanie Williams, the executive director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Norman Public Schools. The curriculum packet included information about the dance film, excerpts from Gates’ book and discussion questions for classroom conversations, Williams said. The curriculum also tied into the classes’ social justice unit and asked students to make connections between the works they studied in class and the stories from the massacre. At the time of the film, Norman High students were reading Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” and Williams said one of the questions in the packet asked students to compare the events of that book with what they learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre. “Although, for them, 100 years — that’s so long ago, but it’s really getting them to think about … some similarities or differences and really getting them to just have a conversation and talk about it,” Williams said. Williams said growing up in Oklahoma, she never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in school and said she wanted the school system to be able to use classrooms as a safe place for conversation. “This is Oklahoma history,” Williams said. “And it is very important for me, in my position for Norman Public Schools and for all of us here, that our students know their history and that we are able to really, really have some thoughtful, intentional discussion about that.” In recent years, Norman has made national news for instances of racism, and in March, a commentator used a racial slur at a Norman High girls’ basketball game. Williams said the dance film and its curriculum tie-in were ways for Norman Public Schools to embed social justice education and to create an inclusive environment for all students, acting upon the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion commitment. “I always call it a commitment and really not an initiative,” Williams said. “I think when people hear the word initiative, they think of something short-lived, like this,
too, shall pass. So really, it’s our commitment. It’s our commitment to ensuring that we are a district where equity is a cultural strength of ours, and it’s just kind of embedded in all that we do.” After the film premiered, there was a live discussion with the choreographers and keynote speaker Tracy K. Smith over Zoom. They discussed their thoughts on the performance, and students and audience members were able to ask questions about the performance and the story it told. In an interview before the symposium, Simon discussed how he envisioned the talk would impact audience members. “They’ll open it up to questions … and just have a conversation about what it means to represent the massacre artistically, to be true to the history of what actually happened, but also to be thinking about where we’re at in 2021 in terms of racial equity and justice, and how we can imagine having these reckonings around these issues in society that are demanding our attention these days,” Simon said. The choreographers hope the dance film showcased this connection between the past and the present. Casimir said while researching the massacre, she felt connections to current events, including the overwhelming death toll of the pandemic. “There are all these people who (died) that didn’t get proper burials, that the community wasn’t able to lay their bodies to rest in the way that they would have liked to,” Casimir said. Casimir also said it was impossible to work on this project without talking about the racial injustice continuing in the United States, such as the death of Breonna Taylor. “Thinking about this government-sanctioned racial violence in Tulsa and then what’s essentially the state killings of Black people that’s still happening today, it may not be a massacre. It may not be happening all in one day, but the numbers sure do add up,” Casimir said. While it is easy to think of the Tulsa Race Massacre a s a s i ngu l a r e ve nt, Casimir said the burnings of Black towns across America show there was something “bubbling up” in the early 1900s. As seen through the social justice movements of the past year, racism continues to shape the country’s history. “There is a potential that this could happen again. I don’t doubt it. I don’t wish it, but I don’t doubt it,” Casimir said. “So what does that mean for us as people?”
CLOSING THE PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE GAP
klahoma’s landscape sustains deep historical roots, including the tallgrass prairies in the north, 39 tribes occupying land from border to border and petroleum-filled veins fueling its beating heart within its central cities. Where history is rich, Oklahomans have experienced inadequate instruction surrounding one of its most historic events — the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The city covered up the truth of its Greenwood District, forcing Black residents to regroup and rebuild. George Henderson, OU professor emeritus of human relations and civil rights activist, said he first learned about the event while working on his doctorate and researching race relations at Wayne State University in the ’60s before he moved to Oklahoma and became Norman’s first property-owning Black resident. “What a tragedy,” he said, that a portion of Oklahoma’s history remained incomplete for so long. Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews (D-Tulsa) referred to the event as “Tulsa’s dirty secret” in a 2020 news conference — a “secret” many Oklahomans aren’t aware of due to lacking education. As the state approaches the event’s centennial, Oklahomans are reflecting on the lack of classroom time surrounding the event and how to implement systemic change in state education systems. When Henderson arrived in Norman in 1967, he said he knew of only two people familiar with the massacre. He said, as someone from the northern community of Michigan, he “arrogantly thought” this event and a lack of knowledge surrounding it could be expected from southerners when, in reality, race massacres occurred
historically across the country. At the time, Henderson said most white Americans in small towns like Norman did not care about Black history, choosing to remain ignorant of it so they might not feel complicit. He said Tulsa’s power structures “understandably” did not want information surrounding the event to be publicized, as doing so would result in “bad press.” He said, however, that whenever a piece of a community’s history is missing, it is not a complete history — especially for Black Americans in Oklahoma. “We lost our distinctive neighborhoods (and) we lost our social class in relationship to its importance with desegregation,” Henderson said. “Black people in Tulsa really can’t go take their children and show them where they lived, because that’s gone. So that piece of history, they can only imagine.” Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, said this piece of Oklahoma’s history has been absent from the state’s education system since it was first made required teaching in 2002. This was when the state department broadly included the massacre in its academic standards — objectives required by the state department for each grade level — for social studies, requiring schools to teach it for the first time. The Tulsa Race Massacre became a more detailed part of Oklahoma’s academic standards for social studies in 2019 through an emphasis on the continued social and economic impacts of the event. The massacre was also included in the department’s “Priority Academic Student Skill” standards from 2012 to encourage a broader exploration of the historic evolution of race relations
ILLUSTRATION BY ALAYNA WELDON
Greenwood schoolhouse, built 1909.
Oklahoma leaders seek to reduce rifts in awareness of Tulsa Race Massacre, improve education efforts By Jillian Taylor in Oklahoma. Hofmeister said it took almost 100 years for Oklahoma’s education system to make significant strides in teaching about the event. She said the shame behind this horrific incident is no excuse for silence, as the massacre is an important part of Oklahoma’s history. “It is still a part of America, it is still a part of Oklahoma, and it’s something that I believe we are becoming more and more aware of and also making that a higher priority,” Hofmeister said. “We want an opportunity for all kids. We want the same opportunities, and we want (not only) an equitable education, but also an equitable life as we move forward.” Although the social studies standards are updated every six years, Hofmeister said they were, for the first time, paired with a social studies framework in 2020 to serve as a “living document.” The state department now provides teachers with updated resources to effectively teach this topic to grade levels three through 12. “When that begins in third grade, it looks very different,” Hofmeister said. “It’s more about just the historical perspective of what was happening in Oklahoma, the thriving Black economy that had developed in north Tulsa and Black Wall Street and all those various elements that some do not know.” As students progress into high school, Hofmeister said the standards encourage “clearer teaching,” including resources like primary source documents, accounts from survivors and original images from the aftermath. She said the department worked with members of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission on the standards so its historians might provide input and critiques. The curriculum itself is developed at the local school board level, as the state department can only create standards and provide resources, Hofmeister said. Amanda Soliván, the social studies content manager for Tulsa Public Schools, serves as an example of an educator creating curricula on a local level so students might learn about the massacre at a steady pace. The district has facilitated several institutes since 2018 to help teachers across all subjects integrate the Tulsa Race Massacre into their curriculum, Soliván said. They rely heavily on experts like Karlos Hill, OU associate professor of African and African-American Studies and author of the book “Beyond the Rope: The Impacts of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory.” Soliván said the goal of these educational institutes is to engage teachers who might not be curriculum writers and remind them how language matters when teaching sensitive topics. She said this is especially important when there is a high likelihood that students in their classrooms are
14 ancestors of people who were impacted by or participated in the massacre. The importance of language is also emphasized through the curriculum by teaching students the difference between “riot” and “massacre.” Soliván said teachers talk about the event’s nomenclature and why the term “riot” was used to “deny reparative justice for Tulsa’s Black community.” “I don’t think that we need, necessarily, two weeks on discriminating between those two words,” Soliván said. “But, I do think it fits within a larger context of talking about historical memory and the importance of language in that historical memory.” Soliván said the school system also provides professional development sessions so teachers might be more cognizant of their and students’ emotions. Techniques include entering conversations on the topic intentionally with transitions during lessons and providing opportunities for students to decompress and apply what they learned once the bell rings. “Civic action is a major part of social studies curriculum,” Soliván said, “but particularly when we’re looking at really hard history, we need them to know that they are empowered and have the skills to be able to do something with that.” Soliván said the school system worked with several people in its district, including its equity team, to make sure the curriculum includes engaging questions on topics like reparative justice and historical trauma. She said a future-forward curriculum allows students to comprehend the ingrained dilemmas of Tulsa’s history and form their own opinions. “I think one of the key things is that our students have an opportunity to see a myriad of sides and to answer the questions themselves,” Soliván said. Eric Parker, an eighth-grade social studies teacher from Oklahoma City and OU alumnus, said a “social justice education” is one of the most important resources educators can give students. He said he shows his students the entire picture of historical events through primary sources, shares how he feels about the topic and then encourages them to decide how they feel. “I tell my students every day that my job isn’t here to make you carbon copies of myself — I can’t change you, but I want you to be able to decide things for yourself,” Parker said. “To me, that’s what this kind of education looks like. It’s trusting students with knowledge (and letting them) do with it as they see fit (by) encouraging them to have their own voice and opinion on things that we learned.” Although Parker said he doesn’t specifically teach the Tulsa Race Massacre as a U.S. history teacher, there was a time when he taught Oklahoma history, covering lynchings in Oklahoma and the Tulsa Race Massacre. He said the topic’s weight was clear to him, as students often had to leave the room to take a breath. Parker, who is Black, said he found himself becoming just as vulnerable as his students while teaching about the massacre, causing him to learn how to be patient with them and himself. “I love social studies, but it sucks to teach (and) constantly have to see your people and your ancestors and other peoples and their ancestors going through this stuff,” Parker said. “So I think that these conversations happened, and they
need to be handled with care. … You can’t expect a student to understand all of this instantly. They might not even get it while they’re in my class, but this could be that first step.” To provide students with a more comprehensive education surrounding the massacre, education institutes throughout Oklahoma have also worked to expand education surrounding the event to other subjects. Polly Base, the English and language arts curriculum specialist at the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal at OU, said she worked with Hill, Rodney Bates — OU’s director of graduate studies and postdoctoral retention and support — and her colleagues to create an accurate curriculum focusing on the history and injustice of the massacre. Base said she serves 23 rural school districts in Oklahoma through the “GEAR UP for MY SUCCESS” grant — one of three GEAR UP grants totaling $68 million to provide better education to schools affected by poverty and teacher shortages across the state. Base said the curriculum is produced for the grant-funded schools but is also available for anyone to use. The curriculum encourages future-forward thinking by teaching about the massacre and then opening up conversations to topics like inflammatory versus discriminatory language. The first part of her “Halls of Injustice” curriculum allows students from seventh, eighth and ninth grades to learn about how this type of language fuels injustice. Lessons on injustice follow what Base deemed to be “more serious issues” related to the massacre in the second part of her lesson for eighth and ninth graders. This portion includes a research project where students create a research question based on any topic they are interested in regarding the Tulsa Race Massacre. Base said, for example, that students who appreciate art can study the ways current artwork “reflects the events of the massacre and helps people remember and heal,” or if they are interested in math, they can follow how the massacre affected the economy of Greenwood. “We want (students) to be engaged in the things that they’re interested in because we know if students have buy-in, they’ll enjoy the work and they’ll love school, and they’ll love reading and they’ll love history,” Base said. “And, maybe, history won’t repeat itself.” Education, Base said, does not end with students. For this reason, Base applied to participate in the 2021 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Educator Institute, headed by Hill and Tamara Lebak, the founder of the Restorative Justice Institute of Oklahoma. Base said she was one of the 100 teachers chosen across the country to “become a leader in educating the next generation about the once-hidden history of the single worst incident of racially motivated violence in America,” according to the institute’s flyer. Participants are required to review resources like the Oklahoma Commission’s report surrounding the history of the massacre, work through a web-based workbook called “Dismantling Racism” and a Serial and New York Times podcast called “Nice White Parents.” The goal, Base said, is to educate teachers so they can understand what happened and how to teach its relevance.
PHOTO BY TREY YOUNG
Dr. George Henderson, OU professor emeritus, poses for a photo on March 8.
Base said her lobby for expanded education surrounding the massacre is at the classroom level, as she is trying to participate in every effort she can on Tulsa Race Massacre education. “I want my lessons, I want the K20 lessons, I want the state department lessons, I want them in everybody’s hands,” Base said. “I don’t want my grandchildren who may grow up in Oklahoma schools to wait years and years to hear the truth about what happened.” Henderson said when his mother had him at 17, she told his father shortly after he was born that he was going to be the child to lift their family out of poverty. Henderson said, when he thinks of Greenwood, he thinks of the mothers who gave birth to their children with the mindset of “this is the baby that’s going to perpetuate and continue our community.” Henderson referred to them as “Greenwood representatives,” or children whose mothers prepared them to continue the community Greenwood once fostered. Through education, Henderson said, the next generation has an opportunity to create a community that represents equity and justice. “Gosh, if little boys and little girls could play with dolls, and a doll has a hurt, something broken, they want to fix it, they’ll take it to mommy or daddy and say, ‘Fix it,’” Henderson said. “Well, if you’re talking about race, they’ll ask adults ‘Well, why don’t you fix it?’ And you have to want to fix it, and we lived in a time in which most people did not want to fix it. They enjoyed whatever advantages they had.” Henderson said he can see the power of education through the multitude of students who have thanked him for not rejecting them for their past and encouraging them to reflect on the possibilities of their future. He said the greatest honor he has ever received was watching his students accept themselves for who they are and translate that acceptance to their children. It’s that cycle of acceptance, he said, that will result in a generation that values accurate education and creates systemic change. “The question is, what will you choose, in terms of your journey, how will you treat others?” Henderson said. “I can’t force you and make you do it, but doggone it if I awaken it within you, and you have the possibility of (treating people better) — that’s a lot of power that the teachers have. Gosh, it’s a lot of power that we have.”
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You’ve never lived like this.
Bizzell Memorial Library
Walk or bike to The University of Oklahoma
THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA
Private bedrooms and bathrooms 24-hour, state-of-the-art fitness center
15 Steps to campus
Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium E LINDSEY ST
CALLAWAYHOUSENORMAN.COM Amenities are subject to change. See office for details.
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