Ray Carter | June 2, 2021

Does race massacre ‘silence’ show need for school choice?

Ray Carter

A common theme of commemorations of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was that the event was swept under the rug, particularly in public schools, for most of the past 100 years.

Some officials say the way public schools have handled the 1921 massacre provides another glimpse of how students can be shortchanged by a one-size-fits-all approach to education where providers are assigned based solely on geographic location, and demonstrates why families need robust school choice.

“It’s an event that all students benefit from knowing,” said Erika Sanzi, the director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, a group that promotes non-political education. “I probably wouldn’t even put it, necessarily, that black students could grow up never having heard of it, because the reality is all students could grow up never having heard of it—and that’s a problem. And there is no question that when a parent has options, they’re looking for lots of things. Curriculum would fall on that list.”

Critics say public schools have long ignored the events of 1921, in which a white mob burned down the Tulsa Greenwood district and killed dozens, and possibly hundreds, of black residents of the prosperous “Black Wall Street.”

“I did not learn about Greenwood, Black Wall Street, or the Tulsa Race Massacre as a child growing up in Tulsa, and it is not unusual to meet graduates of Tulsa-area districts who also did not learn about it until well after high school graduation,” said Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah A. Gist.

Gist claimed that for “more than 80 years following the massacre there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ when schools did not teach about the events.”

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest similarly told Oklahoma City ABC-affiliate KOCO, “I graduated from Putnam City High School, and I did not know about the Tulsa Race Massacre until I was an adult. That is part of our Oklahoma history, and we have just ignored it.”

In a Tulsa speech commemorating the centennial of the massacre, President Joe Biden declared, “For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness.”

A review of Oklahoma History textbooks shows the 1921 destruction of the Greenwood district has been noted for decades.

Yet if the Tulsa Race Massacre was ignored in Oklahoma schools for most of a century, it appears that many school officials made a conscious choice not to discuss it. A review of Oklahoma History textbooks shows the 1921 destruction of the Greenwood district has been noted for decades.

For example, Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State was compiled by the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration and published by the University of Oklahoma. That book, which has a 1941 copyright date, calls the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood district “a night of terror” and reports, “Vigilantes invaded the Greenwood (Negro) district and laid it waste by fire.”

Oklahoma: A History of the Sooner State, by Edwin C. McReynolds, has 1954 and 1964 copyrights, and includes the core elements of the story, starting with the arrest of Dick Rowland on charges of assaulting a white girl, the appearance of a white mob outside the jail apparently intent on lynching Rowland, and the appearance of armed blacks to prevent the lynching.

“The crowd of whites broke into hardware and sporting-goods stores, helped themselves to guns and ammunition, and became an uncontrollable mob,” the McReynolds book states. It also notes that after black-owned buildings were set on fire, “firemen were prevented by the mob from fighting the flames.”

Oklahoma Heritage, a textbook by Billie Joan English and Sharon Cooper Calhoun, is copyrighted 1984 and 1989, and devotes several pages to the 1921 massacre, including photo illustrations. That textbook describes Rowland’s alleged assault as involving nothing more than having “stumbled and stepped” on a girl’s foot, and does not flinch at describing the subsequent destruction.

“White mobs infiltrated the black areas, looting and burning the entire district and preventing firefighters from combatting the fires,” the English/Calhoun textbook states. It also notes that soldiers and law-enforcement officials “disarmed blacks and took them prisoner” while white rioters “were simply disarmed and sent home.” The textbook’s account ends by noting that of 89 indictments issued following the massacre, “only one was against a white defendant.”

Oklahoma! by Jay J. Wagoner has a 1994 copyright and describes the events of May 31, 1921 as “the worst violence in Oklahoma history.” The textbook notes that “a white mob began looting and burning in the Greenwood district,” destroying more than 1,000 homes and businesses. It also notes the estimated number of those killed ranged from 27 to “more than 250.”

Now, having allegedly ignored the event for most of a century, some schools have promised to not only teach the Tulsa Race Massacre, but to do so over and over again.

Tulsa Public Schools has outlined plans to incorporate information on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre into every grade from 3rd grade through high school graduation, including a study on “who is benefitting from the gentrification” of communities and the case for reparations.

James Taylor, who is black, has been a U.S. History teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma City since 2014. He agrees students should learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“It really was a huge deal for what happened,” Taylor said. “I mean, just horrific stuff that they did—the number of people killed, injured and made homeless—because of racism and, really, some jealousy there, because of being ‘Black Wall Street’ and the folks thriving and doing well.”

But he also views Tulsa Public School’s announcement as “a little overkill.”

“The ‘cancel culture,’ it’s interesting that they want to tear down all of the historical issues—statues, etc.—but this, they don’t want to touch,” Taylor said. “They want this to be just the opposite, to push this ad nauseum in a sense, to the point that people say, ‘Okay, okay, we’ve heard it. Enough.’”

Others question how a nonstop, year-in-year-out focus on the Tulsa Race Massacre will truly benefit the majority-minority student population of the Tulsa district.

“The ‘cancel culture,’ it’s interesting that they want to tear down all of the historical issues—statues, etc.—but they want this to be just the opposite, to push this ad nauseum, to the point that people say, ‘Okay, okay, we’ve heard it. Enough.’” —James Taylor, U.S. History teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma City

“It’s like people majoring in African American studies,” said Eddie Huff, a self-employed financial services expert and longtime radio personality who is black. “Well, what can you do with that? You go for a job. ‘What’s your major?’ ‘African American studies.’ ‘Well, I’m sorry, we don’t need one of those here.’”

Huff said if schools teach about the 1921 massacre officials should focus on “teaching the full story,” including the self-made success of Greenwood residents prior to the massacre and their successful rebuilding of the community after its destruction.

“These citizens, without outside money, put their money and efforts together, and they are the ones that rebuilt it without the help from outside,” Huff said. “That’s the kind of stuff that needs to be talked about. That’s the kind of stuff that should be championed.”

Officials also worry Tulsa schools’ newfound emphasis on the Tulsa Race Massacre may be in lieu of addressing the district’s shortcomings in other core areas that have harmed minority students. The Tulsa World reported that, based on a benchmark ACT score of 21 (out of 36), only 22 African-American senior boys were college-ready in Tulsa Public Schools in 2015.

Sanzi noted some parents now define “racial justice” as “teaching my son to read,” not “fixating” on the history of racial wrongs or racial identity.

“When you listen to activists, they don’t talk about literacy,” Sanzi said. “You don’t see, from the same crowd that has the Black Lives Matter signs and the T-shirts and the hashtags online and all that, you don’t see them talking about how 18 percent of eighth-grade black boys read on grade level, and you definitely don’t hear them talking about the direct correlation between low literacy and incarceration. A lot of people, including parents, would make the case that the most important job the school has—particularly at the elementary level—is to make sure that kids can read well.”

While welcoming greater emphasis on events like the Tulsa Race Massacre, Taylor said a potentially more significant development in Oklahoma schools is this year’s passage of legislation that requires state funds to follow a student more closely from one location to another and the easing of the open-transfer process.

He said those changes give parents more sway so they can pursue better opportunities for their children, no matter what issue is prompting concern at a local school.

“If kids are in a perpetually ‘F’ school, and they can’t get out, now they have an opportunity to get out of an F-graded school and go to a school where they can actually get some learning done,” Taylor said. “I love it. I think the competition is going to be spectacular.”

(Image: Black Wall Street Memorial)

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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