Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the opportunity to remember and honor our fellow citizens who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect our way of life. It is important at all times, but in my mind especially so now, to stop and think of this holiday as more than a long weekend or the unofficial start of summer. It can be a time for reflection on our history and to understand that it often takes lives and treasure to keep us all safe. The date was originally known as Decoration Day, and came into existence following the Civil War to honor those that died in that conflict. It officially became a federal holiday in 1971.
Unfortunately, as many of us have only recently come to know, 31 May is also the date for the beginning of the Tulsa Race Riot, as it was called originally, or the Tulsa Race Massacre as it is now known. (Historians believe that it was designated as a “riot” because insurance companies would not then have to pay for damages.) This year is the 100th anniversary of this horrible event. I was born in Tulsa Oklahoma, although I only lived there for a few months afterwards, but I became aware of the massacre only in recent years.
The beginnings of the incident are typical of the Jim Crow era in our country. In sum, a Black male teenager was accused of accosting a White female teenager in an elevator in the Drexel Building, one of the larger buildings in that part of town. It is believed that the Black man either tripped and fell against the White woman or accidentally stepped on her foot. She screamed and observers reported the “attack” to the police. The next day the young man was arrested and a lurid headline and story in the 31 May 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune inflamed the situation. (Note that the young woman never made a formal complaint about the incident and actually put into writing that nothing happened.) A white mob formed at the courthouse and the sheriff and his deputies had every belief that the young man would be lynched, so they barricaded themselves into the top floor of the courthouse to protect him. At the same time, approximately 75 African-American veterans arrived to protect the young Black man. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but a shot was fired and the situation quickly escalated.
According to an Oklahoma state Race Riot Commission formed in 2001 (later the name was changed to the Race Massacre Commission) municipal, county and state officials did nothing to defuse the situation. The young man in question disappeared — probably smuggled out of town by the sheriff and is believed to have gone to Kansas City.
On the night of 31 May to 1 June the white mob, many deputized and armed by local authorities, attacked the Black part of town known as Greenwood. Greenwood was also known as the “Black Wall Street” as it was probably the most prosperous Black enclave in the U.S. at the time. When the carnage stopped, about 300 Black Tulsans were killed, 800 injured, 6,000 Black Tulsans were arrested and interned in the Convention Hall and at the Fairgrounds, 35 city blocks of Greenwood were looted and then burned to the ground, and 10,000 Blacks were left homeless. It was one of the worst such incidents in our country, and there are still people alive that experienced it.
Until recently, every effort was made to cover it up and to pretend that it never happened. Official records disappeared and even archived newspapers covering the incident in Oklahoma had holes where stories of the massacre had been cut out. It was a lost memory, or so people in Oklahoma hoped, until the 1990’s when activists pushed the state legislature and in 2001 the Commission was formed. Schools in Oklahoma now discuss the massacre.
But will they continue to do so?
As part of the “see no evil so we did no evil” approach to history that state legislatures are taking around the country, this month Oklahoma passed a law that prohibits the teaching of “critical race theory.” (Although they were careful not to use those words in the law, the sponsors stated that was the impetus to the law.) Most people misunderstand what that theory entails. In short, it is a long-standing theory that tries to provide a framework for understanding how laws and social norms can perpetuate inequality in our country. Mostly white legislators and governors are using the term as a short hand phrase to include most discussions about racism and to attack diversity and inclusion training because it makes our country “look bad” and thus the law is needed as “a defensive measure against psychological warfare from those that hate America.”
Specifically, the Oklahoma law passed this month, and others like it in other states, dictates that public school classes should not include anything where “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Well, that just about leaves out everything that may be of importance in discussing all of the facts about the history of our country. Any individual? Does that mean that one student complaining stops an entire class from studying a controversial topic? It is clearly aimed at protecting White Americans and completely ignores what may cause Black Americans or Native Americans “discomfort” or “anguish.”
Many school teachers and administrators are now scrambling to figure out what the law means, how to implement it, where the boundaries might be, and what the consequences are for crossing those boundaries. Most are in agreement that it will cause changes to, and in some cases totally eliminate, an array of classes. And who are the Thought Police that are going to enforce this law? So long academic freedom, hello Big Brother.
So under this law, how do schools in Oklahoma teach their students about the Tulsa Race Massacre? Surely the topic will cause some students discomfort, guilt or anguish. Does that mean that it isn’t taught?
If you wonder why the Black Lives Matter movement exists, perhaps one should take a look at what has happened to the Black community in the U.S. and the continued efforts to minimize or eliminate their experiences.
Talk about cancel culture!