As Black History Month events unfold across the nation, Oklahoma officials unveiled a new curriculum Tuesday designed to make sure the state gives proper coverage to the nation’s worst race riots, in Tulsa in 1921.
An estimated 300 people were killed in the riots that laid waste to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, a thriving black neighborhood that was so successful it was known as the “Black Wall Street.”
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, joined a group of black state legislators led by Democratic state Sen. Kevin Matthews to announce a curriculum they predicted would bring Sooner schoolchildren up to date on their history of the riots — and progress since then — when the centennial hits in 2021.
“We can’t lose track of the significance of black history in Oklahoma,” Mr. Lankford said at a Tulsa ceremony. “When 2021 occurs, in that moment, people in America are going to look at Oklahoma and ask a very fair question: ‘What has changed in Oklahoma with race since 1921?’ That’s a reasonable question for the United States to be able to ask of us and it’s a question that we’d better have an answer for.”
The Tulsa riot was triggered by a false report on Memorial Day that a black resident had raped a white woman.
With rumors of a pending lynching filling the air, crowds of whites and blacks clashed outside the police station. That altercation then spread to an out-of-control riot in which white mobs swarmed into Greenwood, at that time one of the premier black neighborhoods in the United States and populated by many successful middle-class blacks.
Fires were lit and reportedly incendiary devices dropped from airplanes onto Greenwood rooftops. By the time violence subsided on June 1, 1921, some 35 city blocks were smoking ruins. Hospitals were overflowing with an estimated 800 injured and Red Cross estimates, later supported by an Oklahoma commission that looked at the riots in 2001, said at least 300 died, most of them black.
Some 6,000 black residents, many of them from the city’s most prosperous black precincts, were arrested or detained, damage ran into the millions of dollars and an estimated 10,000 black residents were left homeless. Greenwood has never really recovered from what happened, according to experts.
An exhibit on the third floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture deals with the 1921 riot, and Oklahoma lawmakers said they have to ensure the state remembers and understands what occurred there.
Mr. Matthews, speaking at Frederick Douglass High School in Tulsa, noted that “one of the largest massacres in U.S. history” took place there. But the state senator also pointed out that the biracial and bipartisan makeup of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission he chairs as a sign of progress.
The new curriculum will be mandatory for state schools beginning next year, Mr. Lankford said.
Mr. Matthews stressed that the curriculum also will celebrate entrepreneurial successes within the black community, as he hoped Black History Month would do generally.
“With all the racial and political strife that’s going on in America today, I’m excited to join with my colleague across the aisle, Sen. Lankford,” Mr. Matthews said. “We want to come across racial and political lines to educate all Oklahomans about the pride of what was what known as the ‘Black Wall Street’ across America, and the tragedy of one of the worst massacres in American history.”