Oklahoma history isn’t all “corn as high as an elephant’s eye” and “bright morning haze on the meadow.” It’s also tear-stained trails, starving sharecroppers and shady land deals.
And it’s Tulsa’s 1921 Race Riot.
For decades, the deadly events of that night and morning were shoved in the state’s vault of things not to be mentioned further back than Woody Guthrie and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Few if any references to the riot could be found in ninth-grade Oklahoma history textbooks, and in any event students were kept too busy memorizing the state’s 77 counties and their county seats to spend much time on that or any other unpleasantness.
“Sometimes history is harder to hear when it happened in your backyard,” said Warren Fuselier, a junior at Booker T. Washington High School.
Fuselier is a student of BTW history, and social studies teacher Anthony Marshall is an ardent enthusiast for incorporating lessons from the 1921 riot into as much of the local curricula as possible.
“It’s more than a simple class in history,” Marshall said.
For some time, the state’s academic content standards for Oklahoma and U.S. history have included the Tulsa Race Riot. The standards do not say what should be taught or how.
Mary Snedeker, social studies academic coordinator for Tulsa Public Schools, said in an email that U.S. and Oklahoma history textbooks “provide an overview of the topic, but not enough detail to teach the standard fully. Therefore, teachers have to use additional resources.”
Snedeker said those resources include the Tulsa Historical Society’s Race Riot iPad application, materials from the John Hope Franklin Center and the Tulsa City-County Library, and professional development seminars and courses.
Marshall is skeptical that the riot is being thoroughly covered, even in Tulsa.
“When I talk to other students, it’s not being taught,” he said.
Marshall said he relates the riot to the 1950s’ and 1960s’ civil rights movement and even to the present time. He talks about how segregation and its slow demise affected the small businesses that were the basis of the Greenwood District’s reputation as the Black Wall Street.
The most important lesson, he said, is the resilience of the people who survived the riot and remained in Tulsa.
“It’s how to persevere, how to move forward,” Marshall said. “At the same time, you can’t move forward by forgetting.”
Booker T. Washington has a unique connection to the riot. Located at the time where the center of the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus is now, it was the only public building to survive the fire that swept through Greenwood on the morning of June 1, 1921. Through that summer, the Red Cross used it as a headquarters for relief efforts. When heavy rains fell a few weeks after the riot, many Greenwood residents living in tents and makeshift shacks took refuge there.
W.D. Williams, who survived the riot as a boy, taught history at the segregated BTW for decades. Some say he was one of the few teachers in Tulsa to keep alive the memory of the riot.
These days, Marshall’s classes include students of many different races. He tells his students not to rely on single sources, including himself.
“Don’t just listen to me,” he said. “I have biases, too.”
Asked if parents, especially white parents, ever object to his handling of the riot and other issues related to race relations, Marshall smiles.
“The students like it,” he said. “And you’d be surprised how many of their parents say they wish their history classes had been like this.”