The Tulsa Race Massacre was notoriously forgotten in Oklahoma history classes for decades. But as the 100th anniversary of the tragedy approaches, it is still important to keep this memory alive in public schools.
George Monroe remembered parts of the Tulsa Race Massacre until the end of his life.
The images could never escape his memory.
“I remember watching people get shot,” he said in a 1999 oral story.
In this oral tradition, collected by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission for their 2001 report, Monroe vividly remembers his mother telling her four children to hide under a bed when a group of white men walked their house approached.
“My sister grabbed me and pulled me down there,” he said. “And while I was under the bed, one of the guys passed me and stepped on my finger. And just as I was about to scream, my sister put her hand over my mouth so I couldn’t be heard. “
Monroe, who died in 2001, was a survivor of one of the most tragic racial massacres in American history. Officially, 37 blacks were killed, but contemporary estimates put it as high as 300 deaths. In addition, 35 blocks of black property were destroyed in the tragedy sparked by an unproven accusation by an elevator operator that she was attacked by a black man.
Monroe was only 5 years old during the massacre. And for much of his life, his story was unheard of by many Oklahomans.
Oklahoma educators try to deepen stories like his so that the Tulsa Race massacre is not forgotten. And now, 100 years later, educators are taking the time to make sure they are learning the lessons that people must learn from the massacre.
“There is a lot of thought to be done about presenting this material and very careful work,” said Crystal Patrick, a teacher in the Tulsa area.
I remember the story
In the last few decades there has been a mountain of works that look back on the massacre. People can find it in places like the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report, journalistic work from outlets like Tulsa World, and depictions in popular culture like the HBO series Watchmen.
However, the heads of state have slowly focused on the classroom.
“I think schools in Oklahoma play an essential role in keeping this story known and understandable,” said Joy Hofmeister, superintendent of state public schools.
Hofmeister attended middle and high school in Tulsa. And she had never heard of the massacre until she was an adult.
This ignorance of the event is unacceptable for students who are due today, said Hofmeister.
“We believe we must make an important contribution to capturing, understanding and recognizing the horrors of the city of Tulsa and the history of our state,” said Hofmeister.
It is particularly common among white Oklahomans that adult Oklahomans have never heard of the massacre.
But Patrick, who is Black, said even though she grew up in Tulsa and attended Tulsa Public Schools, she didn’t hear about the racial massacre until she was in college in the late 1990s.
Further learning the history led her to teach social studies and history. However, resources were lacking for much of her career.
“To be honest, right now it’s really up to the teachers to teach him,” said Patrick.
Syllabus on the massacre
The improvements have been made incremental, the state framework has grown over the years, and the history of the Greenwood district where the massacre took place continues to be added in stages. The antiquated term “Tulsa Race Riot” has also been largely replaced.
Curriculum makers want to give teachers the tools they need to actually teach about the massacre. Tulsa Public Schools have been leaders in translating the massacre and its impact on Oklahoma classrooms.
“We have adopted what they have been doing for a number of years and then examined how we can do this at the state level,” said Hofmeister.
However, one of the most significant changes is professional development, which is focused on teaching about the massacre.
This summer, the district hosted a multi-day workshop for social science teachers through Zoom. It was attended by educators from across Oklahoma and the country.
Tulsa’s role in raising awareness of the tragedy is a point of pride for the district, said Danielle Neves, associate academic at Tulsa Public Schools
“It’s everyone’s story, but it’s very personal and local Tulsa’s story,” said Neves.
Amanda Solivan, the district’s social studies content manager, said this was mainly achieved through a more modern approach to teaching.
“The social studies curriculum has really changed from“ We’ll stand and tell you the facts ”to“ We want you to review the resources and come up with an answer based on the primary and secondary sources we have. ” Said Solivan.
Neves said conversations about connecting the past with the present need to be stimulated in order to move society forward.
“There is an active responsibility that we must contribute to this healing, this reconciliation and the creation of another future that truly values, includes and nurtures all members of our community,” said Neves.
There are two curricula that are increasingly used: one from the State History Center and one from the John Hope Franklin Center.
And the Tulsa educators said that’s a good place to start.
But Neves said the positive aspects of the Greenwood district were lacking in the way tragedy is taught prior to the massacre.
This is where a curriculum like that of Patrick and the social justice and education organization Tri-City Collective comes into play.
Patrick teaches students in various grades and districts about the Tulsa Race Massacre in short-term sessions. But she said she likes to focus on what Black Wall Street and the Greenwood District represent.
The area was a thriving district and it’s important that children today understand the struggles blacks had in the early 20th century, Patrick said.
“For black kids and for kids with color, it’s really a contradiction to this narrative that defines us as a culture, as a people, you know that we’re lazy or poor or unmotivated,” said Patrick. “[Black Wall Street] is a clear picture of what we are capable of as humans. “
The Tulsa Race Massacre was a collective trauma for the Black Tulsans on a dizzying scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which left more than 3,600 Oklahomans dead and many more sick, had a similar effect.
And when students and their families face the trauma of the pandemic in their communities, one lesson can be learned from Tulsa: sweeping a tragedy under the rug is unproductive. It cannot happen that difficult conversations about the trauma-related pandemic are avoided, Hofmeister said.
“Children need to talk about what they went through,” she said.
And that can be through current events or through history, said Patrick. The massacre and people’s resilience are so important to students that they understand it, she said.
“It’s not just black history,” said Patrick. “It’s the story of Oklahoma. It’s American history. In teaching these kids that this is a part of their story too, I really feel like it is making an impact. “
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