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, 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 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 bouts of mass anti-Black violence.