Tom Hanks: You Should Learn the Truth About the Tulsa Race MassacreBreaking News
tags: racism, culture wars, teaching history, Tom Hanks, Tulsa race massacre
I consider myself a lay historian who talks way too much at dinner parties, leading with questions like, “Do you know that the Erie Canal is the reason Manhattan became the economic center of America?” Some of the work I do is making historically based entertainment. Did you know our second president once defended in court British soldiers who fired on and killed colonial Bostonians — and got most of them off?
By my recollection, four years of my education included studying American history. Fifth and eighth grades, two semesters in high school, three quarters at a community college. Since then, I’ve read history for pleasure and watched documentary films as a first option. Many of those works and those textbooks were about white people and white history. The few Black figures — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — were those who accomplished much in spite of slavery, segregation and institutional injustices in American society.
But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla.
My experience was common: History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out. Until relatively recently, the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine. I knew about the attack on Fort Sumter, Custer’s last stand and Pearl Harbor but did not know of the Tulsa massacre until last year, thanks to an article in The New York Times.
Instead, in my history classes, I learned that Britain’s Stamp Act helped lead to the Boston Tea Party, that “we” were a free people because the Declaration of Independence said “all men are created equal.” That the Whiskey Rebellion started over a tax on whiskey. That the Articles of Confederation and the Alien and Sedition Acts were cockeyed. Rightfully, Sacco and Vanzetti, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and the Wright Brothers had their time in my classes. Our textbooks told of the Louisiana Purchase; the Johnstown, Pa., flood; the great San Francisco earthquake; and George Washington Carver’s development of hundreds of products from the common goober.
But Tulsa was never more than a city on the prairie. The Oklahoma Land Rush got some paragraphs in one of those school years, but the 1921 burning out of the Black population that lived there was never mentioned. Nor, I have learned since, was anti-Black violence on large and small scales, especially between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement; there was nothing on the Slocum massacre of Black residents in Texas by an all-white mob in 1910 or the Red Summer of white supremacist terrorism in 1919. Many students like me were told that the lynching of Black Americans was tragic but not that these public murders were commonplace and often lauded by local papers and law enforcement.
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