Trust Not Thy Education

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey

Last Thursday, my African American women’s novels class took a field trip to the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa. We learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre and how the city, the state and the Oklahoma Historical Society are still actively covering up the grisly reality of what happened. For those who, like me, did not learn anything in school about this event—the worst incident of racial violence in America—here are some facts:

  • Greenwood was an affluent African American community in 1900s Tulsa.
  • The city had been building up to a “riot” for a while—it was expected.
  • On May 31st, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was accused of raping a young white woman named Sarah Page.
  • Some black WWII veterans—part of a group called the African Blood Brothers—got together to protect Dick from being lynched.
  • After shots were fired in the ensuing confrontation, the white part of the city advanced on Greenwood.
  • White pilots flew planes that dropped firebombs on Greenwood, effectively destroying the whole community.
  • Captured African Americans were marched to concentration camps, in which they labored until a white person could vouch for them.
  • While official websites say 300 people died, it is more likely that close to 1,000 people died.
  • The American Red Cross fought their way into Greenwood—against all white attempts to block them—to help the victims.
  • The mass graves have still not been excavated and there is no list of the dead.

I went to high school an hour west of Tulsa, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The only details I learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre was that a “riot” occurred after a black man raped a white woman. All of the discussion in my ninth grade Oklahoma history class centered on whether the rape could have happened or not. My educators failed me, and they failed the thousands of victims of the Greenwood Massacre by being complicit in the white supremacist hiding of history.

The trip I took reinforced the need for me to educate myself about the racial atrocities in our past. Since my high school education proved incapable of teaching me this history, I am responsible to learn it for myself.

If you are reading this and thinking, “This is some kind of conspiracy. American public education doesn’t hide information from us,” then I encourage you to visit this memorial in Tulsa. I encourage you to Google “Tulsa Race Massacre” and recognize that there has been little to no effort to retrieve names and numbers of victims. I encourage you to ask people from around the country: “Did you know about the Tulsa Race Massacre?” Chances are they do—you are more likely to know about this event if you are not from Oklahoma.

Two weeks ago, the state of Oklahoma passed a law that requires schools to teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre. It took 100 years for this atrocity to reach our textbooks. What else have we missed?