Author: Phredd Evans, Millwood (OK) High School
Audience: High School history course
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot became one of the most significant events in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s (OK) history. Following World War I, Tulsa boasted one of the most affluent African American communities in the country, known as the Greenwood District, but in 1921 a riot nearly destroyed the entire town (1921 Tulsa Riot, July 2017). However, even today dispute still looms concerning the cause, effect and overall outcome of the incident. Though the textbook, Oklahoma, Land of Opportunity (354-55), covers this most significant historical occurrence, it seems to be documented not as a lesson to be studied, but rather as a situation worth mentioning and nothing more. Therefore, for three reasons; one – civic awareness, how our legal system in OK is set up and what happens when that systems fails to function according to the established law, two- a focus on current social problems in OK and around the United States, and three, social needs which will aide students in understanding the historical significance, and developing the desire to tell the story their way before arrive at an unjust or hasty conclusion. During this three class-period lesson, students will use journal articles and other resources, to compare and contrast written story about the Greenwood District as documented in several period newspapers.
A system of education and learning can be created and built by the purpose and interest of one individual such as the Dr. William Holtzclaw Institute, Utica, Mississippi (MS). On the other hand, a system of teaching and learning can also be destroyed by the accusation of one person. For example; in 1921 a white female was on an elevator with a black male, and when the doors of the elevator opened she cried rape (Baird & Goble, 214). It was this one allegation that lead to the eventual ruin of the entire district. Students will learn that to establish a program of education may take several years of toil, hard labor, and sacrifice, the reverse happens when in the case of the Tulsa Race Riot, a social system became unbalanced which led to the unfortunate destruction of the local community to include a temporary halted of the educational system. Yet, in spite of any set back, perseverance is the key to continued education.
Not long before the Greenwood District became an economic powerhouse to be reckoned with as a Mecca for Black entrepreneurs and their families, around 1913, Booker T. Washington was invited to Tulsa to dedicate the local high school (Allman-Baldwin, 2007). I believe the study and presentation about this riot is necessary so that this important part of the state’s and indeed the nation’s history is not forgotten. Recently, I conducted a short survey of a cross section of our local society. The survey included twelve people of different age groups; teenage to senior citizen, a mix of cultures; black and white, and a mix of gender. I realize this is not a scientific poll; however I wanted to get at least a shallow understanding of what people in the local community knew about the Tulsa riot. Therefore, I asked three questions listed in Table 1.
As documented in the results in Table 1, there is belief that the riot should be taught in the local schools. But, to my surprise, one-fourth of those polled had no knowledge of the Tulsa Riot of 1921. If our system of learning continues on the path of mentioning the riot but not teaching about it so that our students gain a rich understanding that the incident occurred and that it has a significant place in history, then another era of Black American history will eventually be removed from society.
In the timeline of events about that unfortunate situation, much of the local primary documentation was either destroyed or conveniently misplaced, therefore, it becomes increasingly more central to the lesson is for educators to instruct and encourage students to conduct their own research about the riot of 1921, and then based on their findings, write a story, complete with subject heading, that would inform any reader, in the modern era, of the character of the people who lived during that time and how they might have presented the racial, economic, cultural, political and legal circumstances that resulted from this brief encounter between two people from the same world yet, because of race were so far removed from each other. Students will learn how to read about history and then to craft a narrative that explains the relevance of the story to today’s society.
No part of history, regardless of how bleak or unsettling it was, should be passed over as just a mere occurrence of time. All history must be read and digested. Notwithstanding, students should learn to ask questions of history like; why does this subject seem to get less attention than another? Or who were the principle writers of, the Tulsa riot and what was it that one group was so afraid of or concerned about. And lastly, could there have been an underlying motive of some to destroy a once lucrative and affluent black peoples’ district in Tulsa? As the saying is; “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke)
Baird, D.W. & Goble, D. Oklahoma, a history. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press: 2008. 214-215.