Marc Carlson began investigating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as part of a college methodology class research project at the suggestion of his wife.
She heard about the event in high school and told Carlson it would be an interesting topic to pursue.
What was supposed to be a 15-page summary of all his research, said Carlson, turned into a voluminous 38-page document when all the work was completed.
“I told the instructor if he could find anything to cut, I would take the “F,” said Carlson, a native of Colorado who moved to Oklahoma in the 1970s and was unaware of the massacre before researching it 30 years ago.
Now head of the Special Collections Department at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library, Carlson is displaying a warehouse full of items associated with the massacre he’s compiled for a special two-day open house.
The “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the Aftermath” exhibit features rarely seen photos, maps, books and documents related to the event housed on the fifth floor of the campus library.
The free exhibit opened to the public Wednesday and will be available for viewing in its current arrangement through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., school officials said. After that, the collection will be available in nonexhibit form for viewing in the Special Collection Department any time.
A 1921 copy of the Los Angeles Express, one of many newspapers that documented the aftermath of the massacre placed on display, features the words “RACE WAR” in the headline. A Tulsa Tribune copy, positioned not too far from the Los Angeles paper, summarized the event by leading with an unconfirmed death total in a headline that proclaimed, “7 WHITES, 50 NEGROES DEAD.”
Books that analyzed the massacre, or charted first-hand accounts from those part of it, could be found in another area of the small room that held the materials. Black-and-white photos of Greenwood District residents shot at a time before the massacre, copies of census records and even cassette tapes of survivors telling their stories captured the environment of the day.
Carlson explained he wanted to present the collection in a manner that was both informative while recognizing the humanity of the individuals involved in the massacre.
“There has to be a realization that these weren’t random people. They were real people with real stories,” he said. “I was trying to figure out how to represent what happened but be respectful and honor people who endured hell and later rebuilt.”
The exhibit, and several others in the works to commemorate the race massacre’s centennial in 2021, have created important conversations about race and the controversial event that still has yet to be reconciled, Carlson said.
“It’s good for Tulsa because it is part of our history,” Carlson said. “If we continue to come across people who are trying to hide it, that isn’t going to help us at all. We can show the rest of the world that Tulsa is trying to come to terms with it. It’s not just some historical aberration that we can overlook and move on.”
Langston University instructor Stephanie Mekusky and her students were some of the first visitors to the exhibit. Mekusky, who teaches cultural diversity and issues with minority health, was intrigued by the very idea that such an exhibit exists for all to see.
“Having this open to the public is something that’s invaluable,” she said. “I think it’s about time.”
Mekusky, who is white, says she hopes her students “take away the injustice that happened many years ago” as it parallels to present-day inequities that still occur.
“I hope they step up and learn to share what happened and come away with a sensitive and empathetic view of culture,” she said.