Hidden History: Tulsa Race Massacre

Imagine this, you’re on Jeopardy, you select the $2000 dollar question in the category named Lost In History, and Alex Trebec gives you this clue: “One of the United State’s most gruesome race riots, occurring in 1921 Oklahoma.” If you answered something along the lines of “What is the Tulsa Race Riot or What is Black Wall Street,” then congratulations, you belong to an extreme minority of people who have learned about such an important event in American history. 

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Specifically, a segregated black neighborhood called Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, was targeted. Black Wall Street was one of the first major success by black businesses in a concentrated area in recorded history. Not only was it home to about 10,000 people, roughly 10% of Tulsa’s population, but it was a hotspot of prosperity for black people, at a time when the world was only just beginning to treat them as human. These accomplishments were made possible because work still needed to be done after slavery was abolished and black people, being the ones who were doing it for so long, had all the skills to continue to do it. However, the difference being that that they were now doing so in exchange for financial compensation. This clearly rubbed many people the wrong way, after such a long standing tradition of getting such labor for free, so tensions in Tulsa became more and more unstable. At the end of May 1921, the front page cover of the local newspaper reported that a black man, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a young white woman, Sarah Page, in an elevator and it was like a match to gasoline. White mobs stormed Black Wall Street and the surrounding black neighborhoods in Tulsa, destroying 35 city blocks worth of businesses and homes. And just like that, the first significant example of black people thriving in America was stomped out. 

After reading about this, one might ask how more people don’t know about it. The phrase “history is told by the victors” comes to mind, but even further than that, history is untold by the oppressed. The very newspaper article that sparked the riot was quickly removed and attempts to cover the event up succeeded until 50 years later when scholars in the 70’s investigated it, bringing Black Wall Street into the light. Black Wall Street is not just some random fact only really smart people on Jeopardy would know. This is something that should be taught in schools. 

The new meme of the month is actually closely related to this idea of rewriting history: the “gonna tell my kids” meme. To pull this meme off, you need a picture of someone, anyone really, and you just need to caption it “I’m gonna tell my kids this was [any name except for the actual person in the photo].” If the idea’s still not clicking, check out the examples below. 

Rewriting history is dangerous, especially when teaching children about the past. I’m reminded of a controversy in Texas back in 2015 where a high school history textbook referred to slaves as “workers.” Similar to issues surrounding the erasure of the Tulsa Race Massacre, this involves people trying to alter the past, in an attempt to make people forget about atrocities of the past. The Gonna Tell My Kids Meme is funhouse mirror version of this. If it’s one thing this generation does well, it’s making light of a situation. The concept of rewriting history is a messy one, rooted in power struggles between the powerful and the powerless—this next line is about to be so corny. Ahem, instead of rewriting history, people should focus on writing the kind of future you want to live in. At the same time, joking about ridiculous ways to rewrite history is a fun way of dealing with the prospect of everything we know being funneled through someone else’s idea of what people should think. Gonna tell my kids that 2019 was a year of prosperity and good things (it’s better if they don’t know the truth).