Confronting the Myth of Objectivity: Karlos Hill Writes on the Tulsa Massacre

Historians in the News
tags: violence, teaching history, Objectivity, Tulsa race massacre

Sometimes, after educating teachers about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, after dealing with racist incidents in the classroom, after spending hours talking about slaughter and mass graves, Karlos Hill weeps as he drives home. “When I talk about sobbing, it’s because of the emotional toll of doing the work. It just sort of drains you,” he told me. 

But when I ask him to talk more about this toll, the chair of the African and African American Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma changes the topic. He’d rather discuss the joys of his profession: “I wake up every day, even when I’m tired, with a deep sense of purpose and deep sense of mission.”

I called Hill on a quiet Saturday in late April, a rare day when he had some time in his impossibly busy schedule. As the centenary of the Tulsa massacre approaches, he wants to talk not only about his research and teaching on the subject but also about the obligation of historians to work for social change.  

Hill came to my attention through his essay, “Community-Engaged History: A Reflection on the 100th Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” forthcoming in the American Historical Review. It’s the most personal article I’ve ever read in an elite academic publication. Hill deploys his experiences in Tulsa teaching the history of the massacre to confront the myth of objectivity. For the last three years, Hill has been the cocreator and coleader of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Teachers’ Institute, which trains K-12 teachers to inform students and dispel the bad history that too many have learned.

The facts of the massacre are, of course, important: The violence began on May 31, 1921, when a white mob gathered outside the county courthouse, set on lynching a Black man named Dick Rowland, whom a local newspaper had accused of attacking a 17-year-old white woman. Two groups of Black men arrived to guard the courthouse. Hill’s article describes what ensued when “a white bystander moved to disarm one of the black men. As the two men struggled, one of their guns went off. In the ensuing chaos, some men among the white crowd began shooting indiscriminately at the retreating black men, and some of the blacks returned fire. Twenty people were killed or wounded in that brief initial episode. It was the opening salvo of the worst race massacre in American history.” Over the next half-day, thousands of white Oklahomans descended on the Greenwood District to murder, loot, and burn down the prosperous neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. Police and national guard detained at least 4,000 Black residents and zero white residents. To this day, no one knows for sure how many Black Tulsans were killed or where their bodies are buried. Last October, archaeologists identified a mass grave with at least 10 coffins. 

But the facts alone aren’t enough. Until recently, despite the magnitude of the violence, Hill told me that the massacre was little known in the United States, and when it was taught at all, teachers typically characterized it as a “riot.” Correcting that requires not just a more accurate scholarly narrative but also helping others tell a better story. His teaching experiences, which have not always been easy, led him to open his new essay by saying, “In the twenty-first century, a historian’s power lies in being a catalyst for social change.”

He told me that he’s “trying to nudge historians to think more deeply about what their commitments are, what their research is, and how it maybe connects to what’s happening, not just around the nation, but in their own community.” He contended that as scholars, “our power, our capacity to impact people and institutions and culture lies in the extent to which we are willing to align our talents, our abilities, our gifts with community struggles and issues.”

Read entire article at The Nation

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