Wednesday, 23 Jun 2021

Opinion | What Tulsa Can Teach Us

About a decade ago, when a class of third, fourth and fifth grade students at Mayo Demonstration School in Tulsa, Okla., were studying the city’s history, their team of teachers gave them a special assignment: build a scale model of its once segregated Black business district, Greenwood, which was known as Black Wall Street.

The students spent days working on the project. They toured the real Greenwood neighborhood for inspiration, created facades of the businesses, labeled the streets. Once finished, they planned a memorial celebration and invited their parents to attend.

But the night before the celebration, the teachers quietly stayed behind. They doused the model with lighter fluid, set it on fire, and let it burn for a few minutes before putting it back.

The students were dismayed when they returned to school the next day. Who had destroyed their painstaking work, and why?

Their teachers had seized a teachable moment: This was their way of introducing, in an unforgettable way, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. They asked their distraught pupils to imagine what it must have felt like to lose real homes, real schools — real people.

Years later, many of those former Mayo students say the project stands out as among the best lessons they ever had.

As a Black man who chairs the Education Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, I believe that all Americans need similarly powerful and profound experiences to stoke compassion and empathy, particularly as we grapple with issues of historical racial trauma.

The white mob that invaded the Greenwood District during the massacre obliterated Tulsa’s Black community: its property, possessions and people. As many as 300 people were killed; hundred more were injured. The losses, in today’s dollars, would run into the tens of millions, if not more.

Like a wound left untreated, years of silence and neglect left the damage of the massacre to fester. Its effects linger. Healing that history — owning and addressing it — is our present imperative. The centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre presents an opportunity.

I moved to Tulsa, Okla., in the summer of 1984, fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to settle into a law firm career in a midsize, cosmopolitan city close to my hometown.

Early on, when I began writing a guest editorial column for the local Black newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, the editor asked that I write a series about the Greenwood District.

I had grown up in Fort Smith, Ark., about 100 miles southeast of Tulsa, but I’d known nothing of Tulsa’s history — nothing about “Black Wall Street”; nothing about the massacre that was one of the worst incidents of racial domestic terrorism in our country’s history. But I soon learned, and though the story was horrifying, it drew me in.

As time passed, this lawyer by profession became a historian by trade. The newspaper series led me to write other articles and books, to teaching, and to lecturing about the events, which are emblematic of American history of that period — and the widespread historical racial trauma that still bedevils us.

When I think about how we can help people better understand the past, I hark back to the commitment and creativity of the Mayo school’s teachers. Their boldness so many years ago still holds a lesson for me, and anyone who is teaching the truth of our country’s history. Honesty and balance are our allies, as is the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt; to recognize that people do not know what they do not know. We must give people the opportunity to learn and grow, just like those teachers did.

It’s not easy. There will be resistance.

Just weeks ago, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma signed House Bill 1775 into law, which bans the state’s schools from teaching about notions of racial superiority and racism, and even about concepts that might engender “discomfort, guilt, anguish.” It’s true that the bill does not prohibit the teaching of “concepts that align with the Oklahoma Academic Standards,” and the Tulsa Race Massacre is included in those standards. But having taught this history to both adults and children for more than two decades, I believe a chilling effect is likely. Some teachers may avoid the subject for fear of running afoul of the law; others may soft-pedal it.

Oklahoma is not alone. This bill is part of a national movement aimed at racial retrenchment, a backlash against the embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion. And this state is not alone, either, in the way this backlash threatens to prevent us from confronting and repairing the sins of the past. Though the Tulsa Race Massacre may be distinguished by its scale, American history between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement is marked by gouts of mass anti-Black violence.

Learning this history is necessary if we are to advance toward racial reconciliation, but it is not sufficient. We also must build trust across racial groups. In Tulsa, Okla., trust was among the casualties of the massacre, and restoring it remains difficult and ongoing. But it is possible.

I facilitate a group called the Mayor’s Police and Community Coalition. Formed in 2008, the coalition aims to build trust by nurturing relationships between the police and citizens of all stripes. As the facilitator, I schedule regular presentations by community members and police officers, police ride-alongs for citizens, forums and youth summits. We have built a reliable social infrastructure.

After the racially motivated murders of three Black Tulsans on Good Friday in 2012, the network created through the coalition helped then-Police Chief Chuck Jordan maintain calm. Relationships matter, and relationships undergird the trust we need in our communities.

Like trust-building, the larger project of racial reconciliation requires acknowledgment, apology and atonement. Here, it’s a work in progress.

Cash reparations from the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma to defined massacre survivors and descendants have been pursued, unsuccessfully to date, through the courts. Symbolic cash payments to some of these individuals have been made from private funds. While there has been investment in the Black community by philanthropic groups, like the Commemoration Fund, the state’s investment in Tulsa has mostly not been targeted. This should change.

The city’s efforts at racial reconciliation, while unquestionably incomplete, strike the right tone, one of inclusion and openness to new possibilities. Racial reconciliation requires trust between and among the individuals and community constituents that define us. Tulsa is not alone. Most communities have work to do — which means that most of us have work to do, too.

Hannibal B. Johnson is an attorney and consultant in Tulsa, Okla. He serves on the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. He is the author, most recently, of “Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma.”

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