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Shedding light on local history: Teaching about the Tulsa Race Massacre

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Local teachers got some much-needed information and resources to help them teach their students about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, perhaps the darkest time in the city’s history.

Nearly 20 teachers from Bartlesville, Glenpool, Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Union and other school districts took part in “Writing and Remembrance: Strategies for Teaching the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre” June 11-13 at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa.

The three-day interactive workshop, led by Dr. Shanedra Nowell, OSU associate professor of secondary social studies, and Shelley Martin-Young, Ph.D. candidate in literacy education, was filled with survivor narratives, historical information and resources to give teachers ideas for discussing the subject with their students.

“A lot of teachers don’t teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre because they don’t know a lot about it,” Nowell says. “There are a lot of lessons that can come from learning about this event because it has relevance today. Local history also really piques students’ interest.”

Anna Myers, author of Tulsa Burning, and Jennifer Latham, author of Dreamland Burning, were guest speakers. Teachers also participated in role-playing exercises and took tours of Black Wall Street, John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Mabel B. Little Heritage House led by staff from the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.

As segregation laws fueled racial tensions in 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre was sparked by events leading to an attack on the predominantly African-American community in the Greenwood Avenue area. The street was known known as Black Wall Street because of the affluence of the African-Americans who lived and conducted business there.

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, about 35 blocks of homes, businesses, churches and schools were burned to the ground by white rioters. When it was over, more than 1,000 people suffered injuries, 10,000 were left homeless and historians today estimate more than 300 African-Americans died.

In the first workshop session, teachers were asked to introduce themselves to the group and share how much they knew about the massacre, an event that wasn’t openly talked about for decades.

Although nearly all the teachers had grown up in Oklahoma, most had never heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre until later in life.

Joshua Vaughn, who teaches U.S. history at Ada High School, teaches his students about the horrific event, but he wants to learn more.

“Information is hard to find. I am hoping to find more resources to learn more so that I can pass that on to my students,” he says. “In my classes, we have a lot of conversations about political movements like Black Lives Matter and, by learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre, they can track how history affects the present.”

Participants learned what is known from survivors’ accounts and how to analyze photographs to garner additional information. They also discovered ways to make the event come to life in students’ imaginations.

“You have to make them feel what happened,” Myers told the teachers. “Reciting facts isn’t memorable.”

The workshop is part of an OSU-Tulsa initiative to create educational opportunities that will bring more people to the Greenwood District to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre where it happened.

OSU-Tulsa is also located at the original site of the historic Booker T. Washington High School, where the school’s first principal, E.W. Woods, reportedly sheltered community members during the massacre. A memorial to Woods is currently under construction on the campus.

Nowell said OSU plans to organize similar workshops and other events over the next two years as Tulsa approaches the 100-year commemoration of the massacre.

To learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, visit the Tulsa Historical Society website.

Media Contact: Jamie Edford | 918-594-8024 | jamie.m.edford@okstate.edu

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