The Tulsa Massacre and Attempts to Whitewash History

I am blessed with incredible friends. My friend Kevin D. Johnson, Jr. told me about the Tulsa Massacre 18 years ago. He and I want to make movies together and he brought me his screen play called 1921. You will see some of his vision on September 20 at the Herbst Theater. I had never heard of this atrocity.

I am in a reading group with some incredible women, including my friend Dr. Carolyn Greene who shares much learning with me. Carolyn reminded me to read the story that follows, which I had saved but had not read. The following excerpt was one of those mind-expanding experiences that help you see things more clearly.  Please read the entire article by Timothy Snyder whose book On Tyranny is both chilling and instructive.

“In Austria in 1938, the previously impossible suddenly became possible. The Austrian state ceased to exist, and some Austrians took advantage by abusing Jews. Austrian Nazis had lists of Jewish apartments and automobiles, and took them for themselves as soon as they could. Jews were subject to humiliation, violence, rape and in some cases murder. A student of Eastern and Central European history can see in the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Okla., a certain resemblance to what happened in Austria — although the violence in America was more concentrated.

“At the time, Oklahoma was a Jim Crow state. Greenwood was a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa. On that spring day, white Tulsans entered and destroyed Greenwood, burning buildings and murdering Black citizens on a large scale. They were supported by some police officers. Afterward, as in Vienna, property relations were forever altered, which had an impalpable but unmistakable effect on attitudes.

“As in Austria, though, racial violence did not lead to a discussion of racism. On the contrary: As the historian Scott Ellsworth details in his new book on the massacre, ‘The Ground Breaking,’ the systemic power of racism reveals itself in the long silences. In Tulsa, the local press ceased to mention the events. Documents concerning the massacre vanished from state archives. Oklahoma history textbooks had nothing to say. Young Tulsans and Oklahomans were denied the chance to think about their own history for themselves. Silence prevailed for decades.

“A hundred years after the Tulsa massacre, almost to the day, the Oklahoma Legislature passed its memory law. Oklahoman educational institutions are now forbidden to follow practices in which “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” on any issue related to race. (This has already led to at least one community college canceling a class on race and ethnicity.) The governor of Oklahoma has claimed that the Tulsa massacre can still be taught in schools. Teachers have expressed their doubts. Since the aim of the law is to protect feelings over facts, teachers will feel pressure to discuss the event in a way that would not give rise to controversy.

“Facts do tend to be controversial. It would be controversial to note, for example, that the Tulsa massacre was one of many such instances of racial cleansing in the United States, or that its consequences are manifest in Oklahoma to this day. It would be controversial to note that racial pogroms, alongside whippings, shootings and lynchings, are traditional tools to intimidate Black Americans and to keep them away from the ballot box.

“In most cases, the new American memory laws have been passed by state legislatures that, in the same session, have passed laws designed to make voting more difficult. The memory management enables the voter suppression. The history of denying Black people the vote is shameful. This means that it is less likely to be taught where teachers are mandated to protect young people from feeling shame. The history of denying Black people the vote involves law and society. This means that it is less likely to be taught where teachers are mandated to tell students that racism is only personal prejudice.

“My experience as a historian of mass killing tells me that everything worth knowing is discomfiting; my experience as a teacher tells me that the process is worth it. Trying to shield young people from guilt prevents them from seeing history for what it was and becoming the citizens that they might be. Part of becoming an adult is seeing your life in its broader settings. Only that process enables a sense of responsibility that, in its turn, activates thought about the future.”

Here is the entire article. It is long but well worth your time.
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/29/magazine/memory-laws.html

Onward,

Eva