This weekend was the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, one of the most horrifying episodes of organized violence against African-Americans after emancipation.
Linda Christensen, a high school teacher in Portland, has some excellent thoughts on the importance of this event and the potentials of teaching it, especially to her group of mostly African-American students.
Like pearls on a string, we can finger the beads of violent and “legal” expulsions of people of color from their land in the nation: The Cherokee Removal and multiple wars against indigenous people, the 1846-48 U.S. war against Mexico, the Dawes Act, government-sanctioned attacks on Chinese throughout the West, the “race riots” that swept the country starting in 1919, Japanese American internment, and the later use of eminent domain for “urban removal.” The list is long.
This year, Tulsa was one of the instances we studied to probe the legacy of racism and wealth inequality. To stimulate students’ interest in resurrecting this silenced history, I created a mystery about the night of the invasion of Greenwood. I wrote roles for students based on the work of scholars like John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth that gave them each a slice of what happened the night of the “Tulsa Race Riot.” There’s a jumble of events they learn: the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young African American shoe shiner, who allegedly raped Sarah Page, a white elevator operator (later, students learn that authorities dropped all charges); the newspaper article that incited whites and blacks to gather at the courthouse; the assembly of armed black WWI veterans to stop any lynching attempt—26 black men had been lynched in Oklahoma in the previous two decades; the deputizing and arming of whites, many of them KKK members; the internment of blacks; the death of more than 300 African American men, women, and children; the burning and looting of homes and businesses.
Because not all white Tulsans shared the racial views of the white rioters, I included roles of a few whites and a recent immigrant from Mexico who provided refuge in the midst of death and chaos. I wanted students to understand that even in moments of violence, people stood up and reached across race and class borders to help.
That’s some good teaching there. But this is even more important:
Sarah feared that bringing up the past would open old wounds and reignite the racism that initiated the riots. Vince and others disagreed: “This is not just the past. Racial inequality is still a problem. Forgetting about what happened and burying it without dealing with it is why we still have problems today.”
And this was exactly what we wanted kids to see: The past is not dead. We didn’t want students to get lost in the history of Tulsa, though it needs to be remembered; we wanted them to recognize the historical patterns of stolen wealth in black, brown, and poor communities. We wanted them to connect the current economic struggles of people of color by staying alert to these dynamics from the past. We wanted them to see that in many ways that historical black communities like Tulsa are still burning, still being looted.
For most of you, I don’t need to make the case why history is important, but I do get not infrequent comments from random people here on the irrelevancy of studying the past. The work I do on the history of organized labor and environmental history has important implications of understanding these issues in the present; in fact, I’d argue that an argument about what to do going into the future about the present without a grounding in the past is an argument likely to fail. Similarly, not understanding the history of discrimination and violence toward people of color in our nation founded on white supremacy allows people to blame current inequality on people’s laziness, bad morals, or racial characteristics.