TULSA, Okla. — As we drove into this eastern Oklahoma city on the weekend of the 100-year anniversary of its race massacre, in which an area known as “Black Wall Street” was wiped out by a white mob, my brother and I commented on the social studies education of our youth.
Neither of us learned of one of the country’s worst incidents of racist mob violence when we were in school. Hundreds of Black people died in the 1921 attacks, and thousands were injured and would become homeless, spurred by a lie that a young Black man had assaulted a white woman. Dozens of blocks in the Greenwood district were firebombed from the sky.
A couple of days after our visit — we were there to see an ailing sister — President Joe Biden arrived to bring national attention to the anniversary of a tragedy that still resonates in American culture for all the wrong reasons. Americans haven’t learned of the Tulsa massacre because the narrative established after it erased the truth and devastation, and the absolute wiping out of Black wealth because of racial prejudice.
Tulsa was not alone. Four years earlier, up to 250 Black people were murdered in a similar massacre in East St. Louis. There were other, similar mob attacks in other cities, some with lynch mobs, followed by the fleeing of Black residents, leaving towns like Springfield, Missouri, hoping to find a more welcoming environment elsewhere.
Kenya Kimbrough first taught me about the Springfield lynchings and the Tulsa massacre a couple of decades ago. She was a civil rights activist in Columbia, Missouri, and was giving me a tour of the Jewell Cemetery, which she often did for schoolchildren.
The cemetery is a state historic site in Missouri and it tells a forgotten story, with large prominent headstones for the white people, including a former governor, and then an area of unmarked stones in the back, for the Black people who were enslaved by them.
History repeats itself in America, Kimbrough told me, in part because we don’t teach the true stories of what happened here in the first place.
So it has been with Tulsa for 100 years.
The commemorations, though, will be meaningless 100 years from now if we don’t put them in the context of our times. These days, all over the country, state legislatures controlled by white Republicans are debating various bills that would ban the teaching of history in public schools as told from the Black perspective, such as in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The 1619 Project in The New York Times.
I wrote about Missouri’s bill on that topic last month, a misguided attempt to censor local school districts. The bill died on the legislative floor, but it will be back, and its supporters will use the same methods used to rewrite history after the Tulsa race massacre to push its false narrative: Develop a straw man based on a lie; rile up white supremacists to spread that lie and erase the Black perspective from the history books.
In the time since I wrote about the issue, Hannah-Jones has been denied tenure by the University of North Carolina for a teaching position for which it hired her, despite the various academics, deans and administrators who make such decisions supporting tenure for the accomplished journalist. Hannah-Jones, who is Black, was denied tenure by the university’s trustees, who are influenced by donors, not necessarily history, or intellectual consistency.
Hannah-Jones has threatened a lawsuit if the trustees don’t reverse their position, which seeks to erase, or at least diminish, the Black perspective on American history.
One hundred years after the Tulsa massacre, that history is repeating a modern version of itself. White mobs with racist political views are fire-bombing American democracy based on a Big Lie, trying to pass laws that will make it more difficult for Black people to vote, and thus keep political power in the hands of those who believe it’s their birthright.
As we remember Tulsa, and East St. Louis, and all the other cities where similar massacres took place at the turn of the 20th century, let’s do so in the context of what is happening to Black history today. If the next generation of schoolchildren isn’t taught a more complete picture of the history of this nation, then all of the ceremonies and remembrances will have gone for naught.