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OU Presidential Dream Course students visit Greenwood District ahead of Tulsa Race Massacre centennial

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On March 13, students in OU’s presidential dream course on the Tulsa Race Massacre gathered in Greenwood almost 100 years after the devastation of 1921.

The trip gave the students an opportunity to visualize the destruction of the massacre and give them a new perspective to include within their writings for the class. The class continues to look into multiple aspects of the massacre through a combination of professors.

One powerful moment came inside the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, the only building that survived the massacre and is still currently standing, according to economics business administration junior and student in the class Tavana Farzaneh.

“We went to the Vernon A.M.E. church, and that moment was the most like, ‘Holy shit, this happened and we are physically in these spaces,’” Farzaneh said. “We actually got to go physically into this space where survivors of the massacre were hiding in 1921, and we saw the ground. We saw where the fire burned part of the building. That was really, really impactful. … It was quite emotional.”

Farzaneh said the entire trip was moving and gave her a chance to visualize the devastation. 

“Going to the Greenwood District was super impactful because I was able to really feel where the people existed and the spaces that people and their businesses were in,” Farzaneh said. “It was kind of eerie because I started visualizing it, and I (realized) ‘People probably died where I'm standing right now.’”

Rilla Askew, an associate professor in the English department and one of the professors for the dream course, said this visualization aligns with one of the class goals.

Part of the course is focused on understanding not only the events of the massacre, but also how the massacre began and was allowed to happen.

“(The students) are going to come away with knowledge of the facts of what happened in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921,” Askew said. “They're going to come away with knowledge of the climate that led to that. I think (they’re) going to understand something deeper and more painful and profound about what this country is — about who we are as a people and about the truth of our history, which we're only told a sanitized version of it.”

The class is taught by four professors, each teaching for a five-week period on another aspect of the massacre.

The collaboration between professors is part of what makes this class special, Askew said.

“I can't really stress enough how important the collaborative nature of this course is,” Askew said. “What I learned from my colleagues — and what I hope they'll be able to learn from me when we get to my section — is tremendous, and how we all interact with each other and bring different threads in different aspects to the learning process is really fruitful.”

John Stewart, another professor who is teaching the class, said the course has importance beyond acknowledging the centennial of the massacre.

“I was really excited to get to work with this undergraduate class because of its importance, and not only is it the 100th year since the Tulsa Race Massacre, but (also) because of everything that's going on in America,” Stewart said. “It’s just incredibly relevant to understanding social justice and race relations and the history of our state. Both at the local level and the national level, the class is incredibly important.”

Askew also said the class is timely because of the renewed national discourse on race.

“It's absolutely timely because it's the centennial,” Askew said. “But we can't just let it belong only to this year, only because it's the centennial, it has to be the beginning of us really doing a racial reckoning in this country.”

The term “racial reckoning” was coined by NPR to describe the extensive protests of the past year, many of which arose after the killing of George Floyd.

Askew said she believes that reckoning means accounting for and teaching the history of racism in the United States.

“We are finally beginning to sort of count up all of the assaults and devastations of racism, particularly anti-Black racism in this country, and reckoning with this history is a huge part of that,” Askew said. “This class is just one course. It's unprecedented in anything that we've done at the University of Oklahoma, and perhaps in the state of Oklahoma, which would therefore mean pretty much the nation, because it's got to begin here.”

Farzaneh said the history of the massacre is a topic every Oklahoman needs to know beyond what Oklahoma public schools have taught.

“I don't remember learning that much about the Tulsa Race Massacre, maybe just super briefly, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of what happened and how many people's lives were literally uprooted,” Farzaneh said. “It's important that we as students, and as Oklahomans ... learn at least a little bit about this history and then we tell people, so we need to make up for the years that it was hidden.”

Tulsa Public Schools is set to begin incorporating lessons on the Tulsa Race Massacre in May for all classes from 3rd to 12th grade. The curriculum was presented to the Tulsa board of education in February with help from TPS teachers and the Greenwood Cultural Center, according to a Tulsa World article.

“I hate the fact that no one did this for 99 years. This should not be something that the city of Tulsa is doing now. It should have been done 100 years ago, and the fact that it wasn't is, I think, a great point of embarrassment for us as a city,” Bynum said in an interview with The Daily. “You will not have kids growing up like I did, never hearing about this in school, ever again.”

Stewart said the class’s final project will give the public the ability to learn from the students of the class.

“The students in the class will teach others outside the class, and I'm hoping that part of the growth process is that our students in the class right now will develop these digital projects that will teach anybody who visits Tulsa or accesses the site, about the history of it. So it'll spread out that way,” Stewart said.

Askew said the story is not only important for Oklahomans, it’s a story impacting the entire U.S.

“This is absolutely where it should be taught, because this is where it happened, but it's an American story,” Askew said. “It's not just a Tulsa story or an Oklahoma story, it's an American story. When you look at being the worst, most massive assault by white terrorists on the black community, in the nation's history … what we do is cover it up and cover over our racial sins. That's what we've been doing all of our history.”

Askew said understanding the true history of the country will contradict the stories told in American public schools.

“I think understanding all of the layers of the forces of history that go against the master narrative, that have gone to shape our understanding of what America is, but it's only part of the story,” Askew said. “You know, the ‘We’re the beacon of democracy,’ the ‘White City, on the hill,’ all those stories we told ourselves about who we are. And when we were actually grounded in genocide of Native Indigenous people and slavery and anti immigrant, violence, and all those things. Both are true, all at the same time.”

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