People who know me know that I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yes, that Tulsa that is dominating headlines this week as the site of Trump’s campaign kick-off. I have a complicated relationship with my Oklahoma heritage (that I am sure to write more about as I continue), but needless to say, like many others from my generation, I am educating myself now about the Tulsa Race Massacre.
I was never taught about this part of Tulsa history as a child. I learned about the land run, which we were required to recreate on the playground in 4th grade – a day I thankfully missed due to illness. I understood the story of the Sooner mascot for OU, the illegal land-grabbers celebrated as underdog heroes, an idea that my middle school mind began to grate against before our move to California. But I knew nothing of the complicated Black history of the community I lived in.
This is unsurprising. I had a rich education in racism from an early age – not due to cruelty from my kind and thoughtful parents but rather from living where I did, when I did. I heard blatantly racist comments from older generations of my family that I knew were horrible but had no language to confront. It took me many years including graduate school and my early years of teaching to start unraveling and constructing ways that I think about race. Regardless, I was shocked as a graduate student in the early 2000s to begin learning about the horrors of the fate of Greenwood.
For those of you unfamiliar with this story, I will give you a very short summary with hopes that you will go and read as much as you can. Greenwood was considered America’s “Black Wall Street” in the early 1920s. I was an economically and culturally Black enclave thriving in the middle of a metropolis where the KKK was growing at record speed. On May 30, 1921, this all came to an end after a white mob burned the neighborhood to the ground, killed an estimated 300 people and displaced more than 8000 people. The mass excavation of a suspected, unmarked burial site of those killed in Greenwood was recently approved and had to halt due to COVID-19.
Today, the New York Times published an historical overview of the event that is a good starting place to learning about Greenwood, with links to other resources. I have on my to-do list to listen to the Smithsonian’s podcast on this topic, and to explore some more of the first person accounts of the event. I would also suggest that you follow Michael Harriot on Twitter; he is a powerful communicator about pieces of Black history in America that go missing from white education and are necessary for all Americans to learn. Lastly, this weekend, HBO is streaming the second season of Watchmen for free. It is set with the Tulsa Race Massacre as the backdrop.
Taking responsibility for this part of my history is important to me. I think it is also important to continue to seek the first person accounts from Black historians – while my journey may begin with traditionally white sources, I seek out those voices of the history for whom it is primary. I don’t always land on the right path first, but I know to keep trying. I think this is important in all that we do to educate ourselves about those who history have tried to erase.