Social Studies

‘A Conspiracy of Silence': Tulsa Race Massacre Was Absent From Schools for Generations

By Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman — May 26, 2021 8 min read
A white mob destroyed thirty-five blocks of Black-owned businesses and homes in Tulsa's Greenwood District over two days in 1921. This photo shows district buildings in ruins after the race riots occurred.

Editor’s note from The Oklahoman: The following may include first-person accounts of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that contain graphic depictions and antiquated racial terminology. We have chosen not to edit these survivor accounts to leave their stories unencumbered by interpretation or exclusion.

The story on the tape couldn’t be real.

That’s what state Sen. Kevin Matthews thought as he watched a VHS film, given to him by his great-uncle, depicting a white mob destroying Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

Matthews, 61, was in his 30s at the time. He had grown up in Tulsa and graduated from Tulsa Public Schools.

But, he had never heard this story before.

“I watched it, and I thought it was a fictional movie,” Matthews said. “I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was shocking to me. I couldn’t understand how I could get to be an adult and not know this story.”

That was the first time Matthews learned of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Thirty-five blocks of Black-owned businesses and homes in the affluent Greenwood District were reduced to ash in the two-day rampage. Estimates place the death toll between 100 and 300.

One of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history took place in his hometown, and Matthews, who now leads the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, never heard a word of it in school.

“That’s a very common experience of a lot of Oklahomans,” said Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public schools.

Many, like Matthews and Hofmeister, were well into adulthood when they discovered a wealthy African American district — nicknamed Black Wall Street — existed in Tulsa and that it had been razed in a spree of white violence.

The Oklahoman surveyed 305 people, nearly all of them Oklahomans, and found 83 percent said they never received a full lesson on the Tulsa Race Massacre or Black Wall Street in their K-12 school.

Sixty-one percent said they first heard of it through news media. Others learned from family, a friend, or a movie or TV show.

Anywhere but the inside of a classroom.

“I call it a conspiracy of silence,” Matthews said. “It was purposely not talked about. It’s almost like things that happen in your family that you’re not proud of — people don’t talk about it. I think it’s something our city and state aren’t that proud of and didn’t want to talk about.”

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Illustrations.
Mary Hassdyk for Education Week

Oklahoma public schools weren’t instructed to teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre until 2002.

Any education on the event before then was inconsistent, at best. In many schools, it was absent for generations.

The Oklahoma Education Department added the Tulsa Race Riot, as it was commonly called then, to the 2002 state academic standards, a list of Legislature-approved subjects that schools are mandated to teach.

But, the 2002 standards made only a vague mention of the massacre, Hofmeister said.

Schools were told to cover the “evolution of race relations in Oklahoma” and “rising racial tensions.” The Tulsa massacre was offered as an optional example of those topics, enabling schools to avoid it entirely.

Cherise Bowens, a 2008 graduate of Duncan Public Schools, said her Oklahoma History textbook dedicated a small section to the Tulsa Race Massacre, but her teacher intentionally ignored it.

“My teacher claimed he never had to formally teach the lesson since it was published in the textbook for students to access,” Bowens, 30, said. "... I believe the school systems throughout Oklahoma should have taught it because the event is just as much of Oklahoma history as is the opening of Unassigned Lands.”

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Teran Tease, 5, watches at Oaklawn Cemetery during a test excavation in the search for possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on July 21, 2020.
Teran Tease, 5, watches at Oaklawn Cemetery during a test excavation in the search for possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on July 21, 2020.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP

Oklahoma updated its academic standards with more specific language in 2012, but some who graduated after that year said they still finished high school without hearing any mention of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Ellie Tabari, 24, said she didn’t learn of it until college. She graduated in 2015 from Southeast High School in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“I found it unsettling that such a profound event in Oklahoma was omitted from history textbooks used by all of the schools I attended,” Tabari said.

The Oklahoma City school district said its students now learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 3rd, 6th, and 11th grade, but education of it wasn’t so consistent in the past.

“While the Tulsa Race Massacre curriculum has been in state standards since the early 2000s, teachers were given discretion over how and if to cover it in their classrooms,” the district said in a statement.

Oklahoma City schools since have adopted a curriculum compiled by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and the Oklahoma History Center.

The commission also helped expand academic standards on the massacre in 2019.

For the first time, Oklahoma History classes were required not only to teach the destruction of Greenwood but also its emergence as an epicenter of Black wealth.

“Previously it was a mention of an event,” Hofmeister said. “This is very different.”

The state Education Department partnered with the commission to provide a curriculum on the massacre, recorded survivor interviews, and other source documents for teachers to use.

However, there is no statewide exam for Oklahoma History, meaning no accountability measure exists at the state level to ensure schools are teaching to standards.

The Tulsa Race Massacre also appears in standards for U.S. History, a subject that requires statewide testing for 11th graders. High school U.S. History classes must “describe the rising racial tensions in American society including ... race riots as typified by the Tulsa Race Riot,” standards say.

The current version of the U.S. History state test was written in 2019 and includes questions on the Tulsa Race Massacre, Hofmeister said.

But, the state Education Department wouldn’t confirm whether prior editions of U.S. History exams had questions about the incident.

Not everyone taught about the massacre in public schools say the lesson was adequate.

Tulsa teacher E.J. Green, 23, remembers learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre in a 9th grade English course at Union Public Schools.

Green said his class read a fictional book about the massacre. Descriptions of the incident were far more palatable for his majority-white classmates.

“This event was always presented to me as ahistorical, as it’s not a part of your Oklahoma identity, it’s just an event,” Green said. “It was never like, ‘This is us. This is our history.’”

It wasn’t until he attended Morehouse College, a historically Black institution, that he gained a full understanding of Greenwood’s history, he said.

Morehouse’s American History course covered the success of Black Wall Street as a thriving center of commerce — a key piece of the story Green said was left out in his class at Union. The Morehouse class also included a more nuanced discussion of the racial biases fueling the massacre.

Green now teaches 9th grade Oklahoma History and a U.S. History seminar at KIPP Tulsa University Prep High School, a north Tulsa school with mostly African American and Hispanic students.

He dedicated four days of class time to the development of Greenwood, the catalyst of the massacre and the ensuing damage.

Green found the prosperity of Black Wall Street is a particularly important lesson for students of color.

“My kids deserve to have a success story,” Green said. “They deserve to have a story where people made it, where their people were seen and powerful and allowed to express themselves.”

Green’s mother is Cecilia Robinson-Woods, superintendent of Millwood Public Schools, a predominantly African American school district in northeast Oklahoma City.

Millwood introduces lessons on Black townships and Greenwood at the elementary level, Robinson-Woods said. There’s a “huge sense of pride” lost when Oklahoma’s Black students aren’t taught that an affluent African American community existed in their state.

“When kids don’t know who they are and whom’s they are, what they stand for, then it’s hard for them to understand that they were meant for more,” Robinson-Woods said. “It doesn’t take into account all the things they can be and can do. Not knowing and understanding those things, it definitely reflects differently on kids.”

Greenwood-based organizations have led efforts to ensure the next generation of Oklahoma schoolchildren is more aware of the district’s history.

Lesson plans are freely available to all schools on the centennial commission’s website.

Tulsa Public Schools and the commission have hosted a summer institute the past three years for educators nationwide to create lessons on Greenwood. The school district and the state Education Department are offering additional professional development on teaching about the massacre.

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist said the training includes a component on teaching “hard history.”

“Students are going to have questions,” Gist said. “We need our educators to have a very deep level of knowledge, but it has an added element of complexity because of the emotion that comes with such a challenging and painful history.”

The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation provides curriculum resources and in-school presentations on the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Vanessa Adams-Harris has presented at schools across the state as the Tulsa center’s head of outreach and alliance. She said the systemic racism, engendered by slavery and Jim Crow laws, that enabled the killings of Black people is often the piece missing from education on the massacre.

“That type of a structure right there breathed the violence that happened in 1921,” Adams-Harris said. "(We’re) trying to really tie that in and give teachers that understanding that this is embedded into the systems. It’s not necessarily your fault that you don’t know. It’s intentional that you don’t know.”

Matthews said he thinks the public is more aware of the massacre than ever before. But, a bill Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law May 7 has Matthews worried complicated discussions on race will be prohibited in schools.

The Republican-backed House Bill 1775 bans public schools from teaching critical race theory, which examines systemic racism and the way issues of race influence major structures of American society.

“Just like we went 100 years and didn’t want to talk about the ’21 race massacre, today we do not want to talk about the sensitive issues of race in our state and across our country,” said Matthews, a Democrat in the state Senate.

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Copyright (c) 2021, The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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