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Educators seek to spark systemic change by teaching Tulsa Race Massacre curriculum in Oklahoma public schools

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Dr. George Henderson

George Henderson, OU professor emeritus, poses for a photo March 8.


Editor's note: In commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, The OU Daily Enterprise team has assembled five stories about the Greenwood District's past, present and future for our summer issue of the Crimson Quarterly magazine. Click below to read more.


“I don't want my grandchildren who may grow up in Oklahoma schools to wait years and years to hear the truth about what happened.”

– Polly Base, English and language arts curriculum specialist


Oklahoma’s landscape sustains deep historical roots, including the tallgrass prairies in the north, 39 tribes occupying land from border to border and petroleum-filled veins fueling its beating heart within its central cities. 

Where history is rich, Oklahomans have experienced inadequate instruction surrounding one of its most historic events — the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The city covered up the truth of its Greenwood District, forcing Black residents to regroup and rebuild. 

George Henderson, OU professor emeritus of human relations and civil rights activist, said he first learned about the event while working on his doctorate and researching race relations at Wayne State University in the ’60s before he moved to Oklahoma and became Norman’s first property-owning Black resident. “What a tragedy,” he said, that a portion of Oklahoma’s history remained incomplete for so long.

Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews (D-Tulsa) referred to the event as “Tulsa’s dirty secret” in a 2020 news conference — a “secret” many Oklahomans aren’t aware of due to lacking education. As the state approaches the event’s centennial, Oklahomans are reflecting on the lack of classroom time surrounding the event and how to implement systemic change in state education systems.

When Henderson arrived in Norman in 1967, he said he knew of only two people familiar with the massacre. He said, as someone from the northern community of Michigan, he “arrogantly thought” this event and a lack of knowledge surrounding it could be expected from southerners when, in reality, race massacres occurred historically across the country

At the time, Henderson said most white Americans in small towns like Norman did not care about Black history, choosing to remain ignorant of it so they might not feel complicit. He said Tulsa’s power structures “understandably” did not want information surrounding the event to be publicized, as doing so would result in “bad press.” 

He said, however, that whenever a piece of a community’s history is missing, it is not a complete history — especially for Black Americans in Oklahoma. 

“We lost our distinctive neighborhoods (and) we lost our social class in relationship to its importance with desegregation,” Henderson said. “Black people in Tulsa really can't go take their children and show them where they lived, because that's gone. So that piece of history, they can only imagine.”

Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, said this piece of Oklahoma’s history has been absent from the state’s education system since it became a teaching requirement in 2002. This was when the state department broadly included the massacre in its academic standards — objectives required by the state department for each grade level — for social studies, requiring schools to teach it for the first time. 

The Tulsa Race Massacre became a more detailed part of Oklahoma’s academic standards for social studies in 2019 through an emphasis on the continued social and economic impacts of the event. The massacre was also included in the department’s “Priority Academic Student Skill” standards from 2012 to encourage a broader exploration of the historic evolution of race relations in Oklahoma.

Hofmeister said it took almost 100 years for Oklahoma’s education system to make significant strides in teaching about the event. She said the shame behind this horrific incident is no excuse for silence, as the massacre is an important part of Oklahoma’s history. 

“It is still a part of America, it is still a part of Oklahoma, and it's something that I believe we are becoming more and more aware of and also making that a higher priority,” Hofmeister said. “We want an opportunity for all kids. We want the same opportunities, and we want (not only) an equitable education, but also an equitable life as we move forward.” 

Although the social studies standards are updated every six years, Hofmeister said they were, for the first time, paired with a social studies framework in 2020 to serve as a “living document.” The state department now provides teachers with updated resources to effectively teach this topic to grade levels three through 12.

“When that begins in third grade, it looks very different,” Hofmeister said. “It's more about just the historical perspective of what was happening in Oklahoma, the thriving Black economy that had developed in north Tulsa and Black Wall Street and all those various elements that some do not know.” 

As students progress into high school, Hofmeister said the standards encourage “clearer teaching,” including resources like primary source documents, accounts from survivors and original images from the aftermath. She said the department worked with members of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission on the standards so its historians might provide input and critiques. 

The curriculum itself is developed at the local school board level, as the state department can only create standards and provide resources, Hofmeister said. Amanda Soliván, the social studies content manager for Tulsa Public Schools, serves as an example of an educator creating curricula on a local level so students might learn about the massacre at a steady pace. 

The district has facilitated several institutes since 2018 to help teachers across all subjects integrate the Tulsa Race Massacre into their curriculum, Soliván said. They rely heavily on experts like Karlos Hill, OU associate professor of African and African-American Studies and author of the book “Beyond the Rope: The Impacts of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory.”

Soliván said the goal of these institutes is to engage teachers who might not be curriculum writers and remind them how language matters when teaching sensitive topics. She said this is especially important when there is a high likelihood that students in their classrooms are ancestors of people who were impacted by or participated in the massacre. 

The importance of language is also emphasized through the curriculum by teaching students the difference between “riot” and “massacre.” Soliván said teachers talk about the event’s nomenclature and why the term “riot" was used to "deny reparative justice for Tulsa’s Black community.”

“I don't think that we need, necessarily, two weeks on discriminating between those two words,” Soliván said. “But, I do think it fits within a larger context of talking about historical memory and the importance of language in that historical memory.” 

Soliván said the school system also provides professional development sessions so teachers might be more cognizant of their and students’ emotions. Techniques include entering conversations on the topic intentionally with transitions during lessons and providing opportunities for students to decompress and apply what they learned once the bell rings. 

“Civic action is a major part of social studies curriculum,” Soliván said, “but particularly when we're looking at really hard history, we need them to know that they are empowered and have the skills to be able to do something with that.”

Soliván said the school system worked with several people in its district, including its equity team, to make sure the curriculum includes engaging questions on topics like reparative justice and historical trauma. She said a future-forward curriculum allows students to comprehend the ingrained dilemmas of Tulsa’s history and form their own opinions. 

“I think one of the key things is that our students have an opportunity to see a myriad of sides and to answer the questions themselves,” Soliván said.

Eric Parker, an eighth-grade social studies teacher from Oklahoma City and OU alumnus, said a “social justice education” is one of the most important resources educators can give students. He said he shows his students the entire picture of historical events through primary sources, shares how he feels about the topic and then encourages them to decide how they feel. 

“I tell my students every day that my job isn't here to make you carbon copies of myself — I can't change you, but I want you to be able to decide things for yourself,” Parker said. “To me, that's what this kind of education looks like. It's trusting students with knowledge (and letting them) do with it as they see fit (by) encouraging them to have their own voice and opinion on things that we learned.” 

Although Parker said he doesn’t specifically teach the Tulsa Race Massacre as a U.S. history teacher, there was a time when he taught Oklahoma history, covering lynchings in Oklahoma and the Tulsa Race Massacre. He said the topic's weight was clear to him, as students often had to leave the room to take a breath. 

Parker, who is Black, said he found himself becoming just as vulnerable as his students while teaching about the massacre, causing him to learn how to be patient with them and himself. 

“I love social studies, but it sucks to teach (and) constantly have to see your people and your ancestors and other peoples and their ancestors going through this stuff,” Parker said. “So I think that these conversations happened, and they need to be handled with care. … You can't expect a student to understand all of this instantly. They might not even get it while they're in my class, but this could be that first step.” 

To provide students with a more comprehensive education surrounding the massacre, education institutes throughout Oklahoma have also worked to expand education surrounding the event to other subjects. 

Polly Base, the English and language arts curriculum specialist at the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal at OU, said she worked with Hill, Rodney Bates — OU’s director of graduate studies and postdoctoral retention and support — and her colleagues to create an accurate curriculum focusing on the history and injustice of the massacre. 

Base said she serves 23 rural school districts in Oklahoma through the “GEAR UP for MY SUCCESS” grant — one of three GEAR UP grants totaling $68 million to provide better education to schools affected by poverty and teacher shortages across the state. Base said the curriculum is produced for the grant-funded schools but is also available for anyone to use. 

The curriculum encourages future-forward thinking by teaching about the massacre and then opening up conversations to topics like inflammatory versus discriminatory language. The first part of her “Halls of Injustice” curriculum allows students from seventh, eighth and ninth grades to learn about how this type of language fuels injustice. 

Lessons on injustice follow what Base deemed to be “more serious issues” related to the massacre in the second part of her lesson for eighth and ninth graders. This portion includes a research project where students create a research question based on any topic they are interested in regarding the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

Base said, for example, that students who appreciate art can study the ways current artwork “reflects the events of the massacre and helps people remember and heal,” or if they are interested in math, they can follow how the massacre affected the economy of Greenwood.

“We want (students) to be engaged in the things that they're interested in because we know if students have buy-in, they'll enjoy the work and they’ll love school, and they’ll love reading and they’ll love history,” Base said. “And, maybe, history won’t repeat itself.” 

Education, Base said, does not end with students. For this reason, Base applied to participate in the 2021 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Educator Institute, headed by Karlos Hill and Tamara Lebak, the founder of the Restorative Justice Institute of Oklahoma

Base said she was one of the 100 teachers chosen across the country to “become a leader in educating the next generation about the once-hidden history of the single worst incident of racially motivated violence in America,” according to the institute’s flyer

Participants are required to review resources like the Oklahoma Commission's report surrounding the history of the massacre, work through a web-based workbook called “Dismantling Racism” and a Serial and New York Times podcast called “Nice White Parents.” The goal, Base said, is to educate teachers so they can understand what happened and how to teach its relevance. 

Base said her lobby for expanded education surrounding the massacre is at the classroom level, as she is trying to participate in every effort she can on Tulsa Race Massacre education. 

“I want my lessons, I want the K20 lessons, I want the state department lessons, I want them in everybody's hands,” Base said. “I don't want my grandchildren who may grow up in Oklahoma schools to wait years and years to hear the truth about what happened.” 

Henderson said when his mother had him at 17, she told his father shortly after he was born that he was going to be the child to lift their family out of poverty. Henderson said, when he thinks of Greenwood, he thinks of the mothers who gave birth to their children with the mindset of “this is the baby that’s going to perpetuate and continue our community.” 

Henderson referred to them as “Greenwood representatives,” or children whose mothers prepared them to continue the community Greenwood once fostered. Through education, Henderson said, the next generation has an opportunity to create a community that represents equity and justice. 

“Gosh, if little boys and little girls could play with dolls, and a doll has a hurt, something broken, they want to fix it, they'll take it to mommy or daddy and say, ‘Fix it,’” Henderson said. “Well, if you're talking about race, they'll ask adults ‘Well, why don't you fix it?’ And you have to want to fix it, and we lived in a time in which most people did not want to fix it. They enjoyed whatever advantages they had.” 

Henderson said he can see the power of education through the multitude of students who have thanked him for not rejecting them for their past and encouraging them to reflect on the possibilities of their future. He said the greatest honor he has ever received was watching his students accept themselves for who they are and translate that acceptance to their children. 

It’s that cycle of acceptance, he said, that will result in a generation that values accurate education and creates systemic change. 

“The question is, what will you choose, in terms of your journey, how will you treat others?” Henderson said. “I can't force you and make you do it, but doggone it if I awaken it within you, and you have the possibility of (treating people better) — that's a lot of power that the teachers have. Gosh, it's a lot of power that we have.”

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