Become a Patron!

I knew nothing about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 until a couple years ago, when solemn events marking the terror attack’s 100-year anniversary raised awareness about a dark episode of American history.

I studied U.S. history during 17 years of elementary, high school and college education. I don’t recall any teacher mentioning the horrors of 1921 Tulsa and its appalling miscarriage of justice.

Battles over how American history is taught continue to this day. Gov. J.B. Pritzker this week joined the fray over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attempt to whitewash history by banning high schools from teaching an Advanced Placement course on African American history.

These days it feels as if DeSantis and other culture warriors are trying to warp the historical record to fit lies they tell their followers.

“Regardless of some leaders’ efforts, ignoring and censoring the accurate reporting of history will not change the realities of the country in which we live,” Pritzker wrote to the president of the College Board, a nonprofit that designed the SAT exam and AP courses.

Education officials in Florida this month rejected the College Board’s proposed African American studies course. The nonprofit tested the course as a pilot program at about 60 schools nationwide with plans to offer it to all schools later this year.

The College Board responded by saying it would release an official framework for the course by Feb. 1 that incorporated feedback obtained during the pilot phase, Politico reported. Civil rights advocates are concerned the coursework may be revised to cave to pressure from interests that want to control how race is taught in classrooms.

Florida education officials previously have banned teaching about critical race theory and the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that focuses on the role of slavery in American history.

Pritzker responded this week with his letter to the College Board, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

“Illinois will closely examine the official coursework to ensure it includes all necessary history, starting with this nation’s foundation built on slavery, the Civil War where this nation reckoned with that history and the decades of rebuilding and efforts of black Americans to continue their fight for equality and equity to this day,” Pritzker wrote.

The issue affects high school students in the south and southwest suburbs. Josh Barron, Community High School District 218 superintendent, said the district intends to offer AP African American studies courses to students at its high schools in Blue Island, Oak Lawn and Palos Heights.

I wish I had learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre when I was in school. The historical facts would have better informed my thinking about so many aspects of our daily lives, including education, jobs, housing and criminal justice.

The Mount Zion Baptist Church burns in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the Tulsa Race Massacre of June 1, 1921. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP/Associated Press)

But I didn’t know that in the years following World War I Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to an affluent African-American community called the Greenwood District.

“This thriving business district and surrounding residential area was referred to as ‘Black Wall Street,’” according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

It only took 24 hours to destroy the community. All the wealth that hundreds of Black families had earned through hard work and smart investments evaporated in a flash.

The massacre’s origin shares similarities with the tragic murder of Emmett Till, the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and other stories of violence that stemmed from interactions between Black males and white females.

“On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page,” according to the Tulsa Historical Society.

No one knows exactly what transpired. Accounts varied and became increasingly exaggerated as rumors spread like wildfire. Police arrested Rowland the next day.

“An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland,” Tulsa historians wrote.

White rioters looted and burned the Greenwood District during the predawn hours of June 1. The governor declared martial law and National Guard troops arrived.

“In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36,” according to the Tulsa Historical Society. “Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.”

Rowland’s arrest was the spark that ignited a powder keg of simmering racial tensions and resentments.

An unidentified man stands alone amid the ruins of what is described as his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the aftermath of the June, 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP/Associated Press)

“Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy and land lust all played roles in leading up to the destruction and loss of life on May 31 and June 1, 1921,” Tulsa historians wrote.

An official Race Riot Commission was organized in 2001 to try to separate fact from fiction and set the record straight on what happened. The commission concluded there was undeniable proof that white authorities participated in the looting and burning of the Greenwood District.

Civil authorities deputized individuals and gave them arms and ammunition to apprehend and detain more than 6,000 Black residents of Tulsa.

“In that capacity, deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts that were themselves illegal,” Tulsa historians wrote.

Deputies stole property and looted homes and businesses vacated when Blacks fled or were taken into custody.

“People, some of them agents of government, also deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed homes credibly estimated to have numbered 1,256, along with virtually every other structure — including churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library — in the Greenwood district,” the commission found.

Nearly the entire Black population of a thriving center of commerce was suddenly homeless. Those who lost homes, businesses and livelihoods were denied justice and compensation for their losses.

“Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level,” Tulsa historians wrote.

This shameful episode seems like the type of history that education officials in Florida and elsewhere would rather sweep under the rug, forget about or pretend never happened.

Others might insist on presenting historical facts about 1921 Tulsa alongside other unrelated incidents to create a sense of false equivalence that both sides have engaged in violence and the destruction of wealth throughout American history.

The legacy of Tulsa is that Blacks could prosper despite the deck being stacked against them. When Blacks did prosper, whites invented a reason to destroy their gains.

Students deserve the opportunity to learn the honest and accurate history of the nation they live in now, Pritzker wrote to the College Board.

“It’s often said that we study history so we do not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Pritzker wrote. “This cannot be achieved when a misleading version of history is taught.”

“In Illinois, we will not accept this watering down of history,” Pritzker wrote.

This content was originally published here.