If We Knew Our History Series

Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession May 28, 2013

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By Linda Christensen burninglandscape

None of my mostly African American 11th graders in Portland had ever heard of the so-called Tulsa Race Riot, even though it stands as one of the most violent episodes of dispossession in U.S. history.

The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921 in Greenwood, a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.

During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.

Like pearls on a string, we can finger the beads of violent and “legal” expulsions of people of color from their land in the nation: The Cherokee Removal and multiple wars against indigenous people, the 1846-48 U.S. war against Mexico, the Dawes Act, government-sanctioned attacks on Chinese throughout the West, the “race riots” that swept the country starting in 1919, Japanese American internment, and the later use of eminent domain for “urban removal.” The list is long.

I tell students in the English language arts class I co-teach:

I want you to think about wealth in this country. Who has it? Who doesn’t? A study by the Pew Research Center found that, on average, whites have 20 times the wealth of blacks. Why is that? When there’s a question that puzzles you, you must investigate.

It’s a nontraditional curriculum for a language arts teacher, but I aim to teach students to connect the dots about big ideas that matter in their lives—and I use both history and literature to explore injustice.

This year, Tulsa was one of the instances we studied to probe the legacy of racism and wealth inequality. To stimulate students’ interest in resurrecting this silenced history, I created a mystery about the night of the invasion of Greenwood. I wrote roles for students based on the work of scholars like John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth that gave them each a slice of what happened the night of the “riot.” There’s a jumble of events they learn: the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young African American shoe shiner, who allegedly raped Sarah Page, a white elevator operator (later, students learn that authorities dropped all charges); the newspaper article that incited whites and blacks to gather at the courthouse; the assembly of armed black WWI veterans to stop any lynching attempt—26 black men had been lynched in Oklahoma in the previous two decades; the deputizing and arming of whites, many of them KKK members; the internment of blacks; the death of more than 300 African American men, women, and children; the burning and looting of homes and businesses.

greenwood_zarrows3Because not all white Tulsans shared the racial views of the white rioters, I included roles of a few whites and a recent immigrant from Mexico who provided refuge in the midst of death and chaos. I wanted students to understand that even in moments of violence, people stood up and reached across race and class borders to help.

Our students’ history textbook, History Alive!, is silent about the events of Tulsa, but more significantly, the book fails to help students search for patterns in our nation’s history of race-based dispossession. Textbooks like this one help keep students ignorant about the roots of today’s vast wealth inequality between blacks and whites. Instead, our students must imagine why African Americans lack wealth: Unwise spending? Laziness? Ignorance? Bad luck?

greenwood_lawoffice3To inject hope into this “stealing home” unit, I created a role play about recent efforts in Oklahoma to obtain restitution for the death and damages suffered by blacks in Greenwood. For me, teaching a “people’s history” is not merely offering students a fuller, more meaningful history than is included in textbooks. It also means that we engage students in a problem-posing curriculum that brings history to life through role play and simulation.

In 1997, the Oklahoma legislature authorized a commission to study and prepare an accounting of the “riot.” After three and a half years, the commission delivered its report.

Rather than just reading about the results of the proceedings and the more recent lawsuit initiated in 2003 on behalf of the survivors and their descendants, we asked students to think about what “fair” compensation for the loss might mean. We put students in the position of commission members. We asked them to determine what, if any, reparations should be made to the riot survivors and their descendants.

Students made passionate arguments about what should happen. Aaron’s was typical: “We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can compensate the offspring for the loss of their property and inheritance. At least give the descendants scholarships.”

But Desiree demanded:

Who suffered the most? Which was worse—death or property loss? The entire community suffered. We should choose a mixture of compensations: There should be scholarships, as well as compensation for the survivors and their descendants. There should be a memorial day and a reburial of the mass graves.

Sarah feared that bringing up the past would open old wounds and reignite the racism that initiated the riots. Vince and others disagreed: “This is not just the past. Racial inequality is still a problem. Forgetting about what happened and burying it without dealing with it is why we still have problems today.”

survivorsoftulsariot2And this was exactly what we wanted kids to see: The past is not dead. We didn’t want students to get lost in the history of Tulsa, though it needs to be remembered; we wanted them to recognize the historical patterns of stolen wealth in black, brown, and poor communities. We wanted them to connect the current economic struggles of people of color by staying alert to these dynamics from the past. We wanted them to see that in many ways Tulsa, or other historical black communities are still burning, still being looted.

We wanted to bring the story home.




Linda Christensen has taught high school language arts in Portland, Oregon for almost 40 years. She is the Director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College. She currently co-teaches an 11th-grade language arts class at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, with Dianne Leahy. She is the author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word and Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom, both published by Rethinking Schools.

 Photo credits:
  • “Running the negro out of Tulsa.” Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
  • The Zarrow family store. Courtesy of the Greenwood Cultural Center.
  • Law office set up following Tulsa riot. Courtesy of Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society.
  • Survivors of the Tulsa Riot at the Supreme Court. BeforeTheyDie.com — website for the documentary chronicling the Tulsa Race Riots.


if_we_knew_bannerThis article is part of the
Zinn Education Project’s
If We Knew Our History

© 2013 The Zinn Education Project.

Posted at: GOOD | Common Dreams | Huffington Post.


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There are 15 comments by other visitors:

  • it is imperative that our youth know the history surround some of our most infamous neighborhoods. These communities, in every town, are rich in history. Some good, some bad…history non the less.

    Thank you so much…

    Response shared by paramac101 — May 30, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  • Thank you, Ms Christenson. Students need the information and your ability to immerse them
    into the learning experience beyond a reading about it is invaluable. Please continue this important work and know that there are people who applaud you for your efforts

    Response shared by Derek S. Washington, Ph.D. — June 6, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

  • The Tulsa Atrocity comes closer to a descriptive title. Collections of the McLean County Museum of History contain photographs and an early eye-witness account written by one of our African-American Citizens, who was there visiting her sister.

    Response shared by Greg Koos — May 29, 2014 @ 11:25 am

  • I grew up hearing about the Tulsa race riots. My family, white, live just adjacent to Greenwood. When the riot began, my grandfather started to gather his African American buddies in his house. When his house was full, Grandad, an imposing man who was a community leader, got his shotgun and sat in the rocking chair on the front porch. No one dared cross him.

    My mother, who died in 2005, wanted to write a book about the Tulsa race riots because so few knew what happened. I, too, grew up in the adjacent neighborhood and only knew what happened from my family stories.

    I just retired from 47 years in education. Problem posing is such a powerful way to present histories, issues, concerns. . . Anything . . . To our learners. Thank you for your ideas, Linda.

    Response shared by Jane Cruz — May 29, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

  • God bless you for bringing this burried history to the attention of your students in a way that made it real for them. We must continue our quest to bring the true history of America to light, both good and bad, a history that is inclusive of all ethnicities.

    Response shared by sml51 — May 30, 2014 @ 9:53 am

  • I am a Caucasian born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I grew up hearing stories about my granddad who had been employed to pick up the bodies of deceased Negros, on the fair grounds, where they had been herded, after the burning of the Community of Greenwood. I heard that garbage was dumped at the fairgrounds for the survivors to eat.
    As an adult I learned, after some research, that in 1921 the fair grounds were in a different location from where they are now.
    It was difficult to believe the stories I heard as a child. I did see the discrimination of Negros as I grew up there. My first memory of discrimination was the sight of the Negro and White water fountains and restrooms in the downtown “KRESS” store. I never understood why people could be treated with so much prejudice and hatefulness.
    Tulsa’s story needs to be brought out into the open. Thank you Linda for teaching real history and helping the students to “think.”

    Response shared by Paulett McIntosh — May 30, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

  • It’s clear to me that history courses must contain the “good and bad” events of the past. Honest reporting of what happened must be known. We need more courageous teachers like Ms Christensen. Thanks to the Zinn Education Project too.

    Response shared by Clifford Knapp — June 1, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

  • Great that you made this useable and modifiable by any teacher or parent for various age ranges. Thanks, zinnedproject.org !!

    Response shared by Shije — October 13, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

  • I am so glad to see some real history being brought forth for our young people to really sink their minds into. Their is so much history that is covered up and changed in the curriculum that is being taught today that is incorrect. I will be educating myself again !!!!

    Thank you very much Zinn Project.

    Response shared by James A. Rodgers — January 18, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

  • Great to open this up to all students. I became aware of the ’21 Riot and bought a privately published book of actual voices of the targets ( Black people) Newspaper photocopies of whole pages, and most tellingly the record of the American Red Crosswho intervened in the bloodiest, cruelest brutality visited upon any group in this country in thefts century.

    The publisher : Bob Hower, of Tulsa Race Riot: “America’s Deadliest, issued by The Homesteadf press, Tulsa, OK, in 1993.

    orders: bhower@fullnet.net or auslande@swbell.net

    Fax: : (918)734-3863 or (918) 834-2572

    The pictures and original documents will stimulate all who encounter them.

    Yours, Stuart Chandler, Los Angeles, CA

    Response shared by Stuart M. Chandler — May 22, 2015 @ 12:18 pm

  • Wilmington, NC 1898 — White “community leaders,” became upset that “nigras” were participating in local government Fusion party, in coalition with low-income and non-property owning whites. Whites, afraid of being outnumbered in a functioning democracy, were also feeling the economic impact of competing for Af-Am customers who could now shop at Af-Am owned businesses. The white press, both local & in state capitol perpetuated the “black men rape white women” stereotype. They fomented rebellion by white thugs who burned the office/press & home of the black newspaper editor and other black businesses. An unknown number of African Americans were killed, bodies dumped in the river. Many forced onto trains and exiled.
    Marks the beginning of Jim Crow in NC as whites clamped down on anything that would allow blacks to imagine they could participate in democracy.
    See Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, Cecelski & Tyson.

    Locals & scholars have engaged in decades-long community education and have pressured Legislature, NC Dept of Instruction and local schools department to get the topic at least mentioned in 8th grade History. How well it is presented is up to teachers & principals.

    Response shared by Carol Barre — May 31, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

  • this and so many more lessons need to be taught to every child growing up, and to adults who grew up only learning a white (supremacist) washed version of history . it’s time to openly acknowledge the terrible and sadistic history of this country, and you are doing it well

    thank you

    Response shared by wiseoldsnail — May 31, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

  • I’m most grateful for this good and important work. I hope and trust that in Portland the lessons of Tulsa are being connected to the current gentrification taking place in that city, even as they are clearly present in the abuses of eminent domain recently suffered in my own backyard.

    Response shared by Mark Van Sant — June 3, 2016 @ 6:27 am

  • Thank you for this history.

    Response shared by susan hutchison — June 3, 2016 @ 11:32 am

  • History has to be corrected, for the sake of Justice in History; Justice demanded NOW in history I order to renew history! Thank you for this effort to redeem justice from and in history!

    Response shared by Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar — September 12, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

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