EDITOR’S NOTE: This was supposed to run a couple of weeks ago, at the time of the anniversary of what happened in Tulsa, but it didn’t, and it’s entirely my fault. As y’all know, I’ve had a lot going on lately, day and night, and so certain routine activities — such as blogging, and checking my personal email — have fallen by the wayside. Well, yesterday, I managed to put up a post, and I’m getting close to catching up on email (maybe an hour or two of intense monotony left to do, whenever I can find an hour or two). Anyway, I still think we can have a useful conversation on this subject, so with my sincere apologies to Paul, I pass on his column, “When Did You Learn About the Tulsa Race Massacre?”
By Paul V. DeMarco
I am astonished and embarrassed that I learned about it so late in life. It’s particularly galling because the black freedom struggle is something I’m interested in and have read about. The March on Washington occurred the year of my birth, and I have always felt a connection to the Civil Rights Movement. The PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize brought the movement to life for me and propelled me to read the first volume of Taylor Branch’s trilogy Parting the Waters: America in the King Years. My interest in the subject has recently been rekindled and I have resumed my reading about it, focusing on South Carolina’s role in the movement. I just finished Claudia Smith Brinson’s Stories of Struggle: The Clash over Civil Rights in South Carolina which tells of some of the unsung heroes and moments in our state.
I have no memory of hearing about the massacre until earlier this year while I was listening to the podcast Teaching Hard History, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I learned that the massacre was a brutal decimation of the wealthiest black community in America by an organized white mob. Estimates vary but dozens to hundreds were killed and more than a thousand black homes and hundreds of black businesses were destroyed. After two days of annihilation, approximately a 35-block area had been burned to the ground. No one was ever prosecuted. The 100th anniversary of the massacre coincides with Memorial Day.
The reclamation of this suppressed history is part of the George Floyd effect. Many whites, myself included, had been lulled into believing that America was becoming a post-racial society. But over the past decade there has been a growing sense of incompletion, of too much left undone. This unease began to disturb the national conscience in 2013 with the death of Trayvon Martin, was inflamed by the election of Donald Trump, and reached a tipping point with Floyd’s death. Each name that made national headlines (Garner, Brown, Rice, Scott, Castille, Taylor, etc.) was a message: We are nowhere near finished with racial reconciliation in the U.S.
I’m glad that this part of history is finally being told. The title of the podcast Teaching Hard History is apt. We know the easy, comfortable parts. If you’re a Christian, you will recognize a parallel with our religious education. The story of Tulsa has been treated by whites in a way similar to the way Christians have treated the hard sayings of Jesus. All of us have our favorite comforting verses. But some of what Jesus spoke to his followers was searing. One of the most demanding of Jesus’ prescriptions is found in the gospel of Mark. When a rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus replies, “One thing you lack: Go and sell all you possess and give it to the poor.” Only courageous preachers use this as a sermon text.
Mixed with my gratitude that these neglected stories are finally being told is a disappointment that I have been deliberately miseducated. In contrast to my ignorance of Tulsa, I have retained the name of Denmark Vesey, a free black man who planned a slave revolt in Charleston in 1822. The plot was discovered and he and about thirty of his followers were executed. I remember being taught several times about this. How could I know the name of a man who killed no one but simply scared the bejesus out of white Southerners and not know about Tulsa?
Reasonable people can disagree about what history is essential to teach our children. However, I would submit that not teaching me about the Tulsa massacre was a deliberate omission by a white society that didn’t want to spoil the narrative of its benignity and wholesomeness. In that same vein, in the late seventies when I took South Carolina history in middle school, I was taught the Lost Cause narrative, the crux of which is that the Civil War (usually referred to as “The War Between the States” and sometimes as “The War of Northern Aggression” in my classroom) was about states’ rights, not slavery. Even at that tender age, I remember being confused. Wasn’t the right that all the fighting was about the right to own slaves? I remember arguing this point after class with a friend whose family had lived for generations in the Charleston area. We did not reach consensus.
Some whites are not interested in any reappraisal of our history. Exposing our middle and high school students to this and other episodes of ruthless racially-motivated violence takes some of the shine off the narrative that we have always been the good guys. Conservative politicians and news outlets recognize whites’ fear of this long-overdue reexamination and their desire to change the subject. This desire is the motivation behind the focus on critical race theory (CRT). I suspect that most people who oppose CRT have a very shallow understanding of it. Since they can’t say they are against studying the truth of our racial past, they beat up on the straw man of CRT, which they portray as a shadowy Marxist plot to convince our children to hate America.
Some states, including Oklahoma, have banned CRT and others are trying (Note to legislators: the best way to stoke interest in a subject among young people is to ban it). But most of those who recognize the omissions in the history we teach have no interest in CRT. All we want is for the full, unvarnished story to be told. Hearing the truth of Tulsa and other history like it will be a painful. But it will also set us free.
Dr. DeMarco is a physician who lives in Marion, and a long-time reader of this blog.