Curriculum Counts

by Hannibal B. Johnson


Despite its significance as the worst so-called race riot in American history, even some Tulsans remain oblivious to the tragic events of late May 1921. Still more claim only a superficial familiarity with it.

We need to teach and learn about the Riot. We need to know what happened and why. We need to hold people accountable; assign moral responsibility for the gross depredations and injustices perpetrated on Tulsa soil. If, and only if, we teach and learn about the Riot will we begin the process of reconciliation in earnest, recapture a lost sense of shared humanity, and create for posterity a community more open, inclusive and loving than the one in which we live today. We must incorporate this potent, painful, poignant legacy into the classroom in deliberate, systematic ways.

When we sanitize our past, we stifle our ability to analyze it intensively and critically.

The history surrounding the Riot is but one case in point. Some believe a conspiracy of silence enveloped the community in the wake of the Riot and muzzled it for decades thereafter. Tulsans scarcely spoke of this traumatic event privately, let alone publicly. Textbooks omitted references to this ugly chapter in our history.

The full dimensions of this epic tragedy have only been recently realized. Arguably, that years-long obfuscation stunted Tulsa’s growth, both physically and spiritually. Our failure to come clean about Tulsa’s dirty little secret undermined the ability of the community to build trust across the great chasm of race and use history as a catalyst for strategic, transformational change.

An eleven-member, legislatively created 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission, initially convened in 1997, changed the trajectory of Riot coverage and prompted a groundswell of public interest.

The state charged the Commission with conducting an investigation and further tasked it on appropriate action, including reparations. The sometimes-contentious deliberations of the Commission drew world-wide media attention and rekindled local curiosity. In 2001, the Commission issued its final report. Among the Commission’s recommendations were:

  • Direct payment of reparations to Riot survivors and descendants
  • A scholarship fund for students affected by the Riot
  • Economic incentives to spur development in the Greenwood District
  • Construction of a Riot-related memorial

Initially, the Commission’s endorsement of cash reparations drew particular attention. Indeed, early media focus on money payments dwarfed coverage of the other items and, more importantly, drowned out discussion of broader philosophical questions centering on the definition of and rationale for reparations. Those foundational questions about reparations merit additional consideration.

Reparations make amends for injustices. Properly conceived, reparations help bridge divides, bolster trust and build community.

How is it possible to satisfy the core definitional criteria for reparations—to make amends—and the fundamental rationale underlying reparations—reconciliation—without a viable effort to educate the community on the cause for which reparations are to be made? Surely, a baseline of knowledge about the event for which reparations are offered is the sine qua non of meaningful reparations. Broad-based support for Riot reparations hinges on community awareness about our history—the events that transpired before, during and after the fateful event we know as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

The Commission’s reparations wish list contained no reference to curriculum reform, arguably the most meaningful, enduring form of reparations imaginable. This stunning omission undercut its other recommendations. No matter what else we may do, we will not be whole unless and until we own our past, process it and integrate its lessons in the classroom.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the centrality of curriculum in addressing the Riot and its legacy. On October 12, 2008, the Tulsa City Council passed a Riot-inspired resolution supporting, among other things, the teaching of an appropriate curriculum to ensure the Riot is adequately covered in Oklahoma’s educational institutions as an historical event. It was a call for reparations. It was a call to action, and a moment of hope.

Teaching about the Riot is now part of the state’s “Priority Academic Student Skills,” proficiency expectations for various subjects and grade levels. Some ninth-grade Oklahoma History textbooks now include a discussion of the Riot. Creative teachers have supplemented regular curricula with Riot-related materials and experiential activities. The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation compiled supplementary curricular materials on Riot history, and is working with Tulsa Public Schools to make them widely available to educators. The Franklin Center’s annual Reconciliation in America symposium brings together scholars and practitioners in an effort to spur racial reconciliation efforts. Curriculum reform is a core piece of the puzzle. While these are encouraging developments, much work remains to be done.

Why not be honest and transparent? Why not infuse interdisciplinary teachings about the Riot into our schools? Why not ask the provocative questions that expose the present manifestations of past horrors?

With a sense of purpose and a dose of creativity, Riot-related history may be woven into our curricular fabric. The consequences will be powerful, positive, and generation-spanning.