Edison Preparatory School teacher Christina Parker never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre until she moved here from Seattle last summer.
Although she quickly learned of the 1921 destruction of Black Wall Street and the segregated Greenwood District by a white mob, it wasn’t until this week that Parker realized the sheer scope and impact of what was long the city’s darkest secret.
She and about 50 teachers from across Tulsa Public Schools spent the week participating in the district’s second annual Tulsa Race Massacre Teacher Institute.
The volunteer group of educators toured the Greenwood District, with stops at Reconciliation Park and the Greenwood Cultural Center. They heard from local experts about the causes and consequences of the massacre and developed lesson plans for their students.
Parker and the other teachers endured a roller coaster of emotions throughout the week. Some, she said, were able to compartmentalize and focus on content learning. But she wasn’t one of them.
“This is the city I live in now, and this wasn’t that long ago,” Parker said. “We still see a lot of the repercussions from that event today in our city. It was very emotional for me, and it made me have a lot of feels about where I am in the world in terms of my white privilege and where I want my students’ futures to be, what I could do to help inform them and teach them with empathy and intention.”
The goal of the institute is twofold, said Danielle Neves, executive director of teaching and learning at TPS.
Part of it is about teachers learning the history of the event and its role in shaping what Tulsa looks like today. The other part involves helping them teach about it in a way that enables students to understand what happened and why.
“We want to ensure that our students, rather than moving forward with a culture of silence, are able to embrace the rich heritage of their city and also understand how we learn from that hard history and how we actually take steps to create racial healing and reconciliation here in Tulsa,” Neves said.
Unlike Parker, Carnegie Elementary School teacher Jennifer Solis has known about the massacre for most of her life. She attended a middle school in south Tulsa in 1997, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was established. Today, a group known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is working toward commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the event.
Solis remembers grappling with the findings of the earlier commission, which largely were unknown until then, and the tarnished legacy of her predominately white community.
One of her favorite parts of the institute was hearing the perspectives and experiences of local teachers who come from all walks of life.
“It’s been very interesting for me to be here and also encounter other folks who are multigenerational Tulsans that may be younger or older than I am,” Solis said, “to see what is their lens that they’re looking through. What were they taught in high school?”
As a special education teacher, Solis likes to develop lesson plans that are interactive and experiential. She wants to use building blocks to create a replica of Black Wall Street to teach her students about the thriving business district and its tragic fate.
The race massacre is an important part of the city’s story, Solis said. She appreciates Tulsa Public Schools for trusting children with this knowledge.
But that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until recently that many Oklahoma school districts began incorporating the massacre into lesson plans.
Solis said part of her understands the reluctance to teach children about how something so horrible could happen right here at home. Teachers are adults, and adults are nurturers and caretakers. They want the best for their students, she said.
“That often means different things for different people,” she said. “But I wholeheartedly believe that when we trust children with their identities and with their stories, they can rise to the occasion. They will often, if not always, surpass our expectation and teach us more than we thought we were going to teach them.”
Joe Nelson, who teaches at Rogers College High School, said people sometimes don’t think students can handle conversations about the massacre and therefore avoid them.
It’s not because what happened in 1921 was violent, Nelson said, but rather because it was about race — a taboo subject in classrooms.
“It’s just something we don’t talk about,” he said. “But what I’ve found in my room, whether it’s eighth grade or whether it’s 12th grade, these students are keenly aware of race. They are keenly aware of problems and power dynamics in society. And so we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t acknowledge it and give them a place where they can talk about it.”