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I moved to Tulsa in the summer of 1984, fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to set up a law firm in a midsize, cosmopolitan city near my hometown.
When I started writing a guest column for the local black newspaper The Oklahoma Eagle, the editor asked me to write a series about the Greenwood District.
I’m in Fort Smith, Ark. grew up about 100 miles southeast of Tulsa, but I hadn’t known about Tulsa’s history – nothing about Black Wall Street, nothing about the massacre that was one of the worst episodes of racist terrorism in our country’s history. But I soon learned, and although the story was terrifying, it attracted me.
Over time, this lawyer became a historian by profession. The newspaper series led me to write, teach, and speak other articles and books on the events emblematic of American history at the time – and the widespread historical racial trauma that still plagues us.
As I think about how we can help people better understand the past, I remember the dedication and creativity of Mayo School teachers. Your audacity so many years ago is still a lesson to me and to anyone teaching the truth about our country’s history. Honesty and balance are our allies, as is the ability to help people when in doubt, to see that people don’t know what they don’t know. We need to give people opportunities to learn and grow, just as these teachers did.
It is not easy. There will be resistance.
Just a few weeks ago, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed the House Bill 1775, which bans state schools from teaching about concepts of racial superiority and racism, and even concepts that could create “malaise, guilt, fear”. It is true that the bill does not prohibit teaching of “concepts that conform to Oklahoma academic standards,” and the Tulsa Race massacre is included in those standards. But after teaching this story to both adults and children for more than two decades, I believe a chilling effect is likely. Some teachers avoid the subject for fear of conflicting with the law; others can turn it down.
Oklahoma is not alone. This bill is part of a national movement aimed at racial reduction, a backlash against the acceptance of diversity, justice and inclusion. Nor does this state stand alone in the way in which this backlash threatens to prevent us from confronting and making amends for the sins of the past. Although the Tulsa Race massacre can be distinguished by its scale, American history between the end of reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement has been marked by mass violence against blacks.