Greenwood: I didn’t know what I didn’t know

Photo from Oklahoma Historical Society

Many of you probably watched “60 Minutes” this evening and saw the segment about the Greenwood riot and massacre in Tulsa in 1921. And you probably heard about it last year during all the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The Tulsa community once known as Black Wall Street was attacked by white Tulsans, looted and burned. Some 36 square city blocks were destroyed. An estimated 150-300 residents were murdered. Of the 10,000 homeless survivors, 6,00 were herded into temporary internment camps.

During the “60 Minutes” segment, one individual spoke of being educated in Tulsa schools but never hearing about the massacre. Another mentioned calling out his Black History professor at OU, insisting that the professor was wrong, that he (the student) had gone to school in Greenwood and had never heard of the massacre.

I was not surprised to hear that. In fact, I was relieved. Relieved because I grew up in Oklahoma City, was educated in OKC schools, and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1965. I lived in OKC for the next 30 years, yet don’t recall ever hearing about the Greenwood incident before last summer. I’ve been questioning my own memory, but now I’m convinced the incident was never mentioned in my classes or textbooks. Not even in the required course on Oklahoma history. If people younger than I, who live(d) in and were educated in Tulsa, had never heard about it, then I’m reasonably sure I never did.

I’m shocked but not surprised that something so historically significant was, in essence, hidden from me. And apparently, from many in the next generation or two. No wonder it’s taken so long to sort out this nation’s race problems. Like those Tulsans on “60 Minutes,” I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

NOTE, May 26: I’ve been hearing a lot this week about the Greenwood massacre, since it’s the 100th anniversary. It seems almost no one had heard of it. Truly shocking that such an event could have been hidden so well for so long from so many people.

11 thoughts on “Greenwood: I didn’t know what I didn’t know

  1. This area and many more places have had similar incidents in the past – there just wasn’t “instant reporting” widespread as there is now with social media.
    Humans notoriously have short memories. Only those curious or interested in an area’s history – how we got to were we are – probably know about these events. That’s why accurate factual history ( with photos) are important to record.
    Those who do not know the past are destined to repeat it.
    While schools must select limited info due to limited time, much gets swept under the rug for one reason or another – dominant population, politics, current trends in philosophy/sociology.
    Not surprised it was never taught in schools. Textbooks at that time were written to broadly cover national events, not local. In the ’80’s they started tailoring texts regionally.
    History is important. Each city and state should mandate a study of their state – warts and all – at least to show what progress was made and the cost. (Ours was in 4th grade and 7th grade) Unfortunately that includes violence against groups and why. It can be done at appropriate grade level (with upper grades discussing sociological reasons and impact. The younger just need to know it on developmental level – where it happened and it was wrong and we do must always work to do better. A bit of sheltering until able to understand the universal nature of mankind.)
    So many times adults around kids have to step in and teach was is not taught in schools. Otherwise people, often good people, in ignorance, misstep – how could anyone have an understanding of current events without a full picture of the past.
    Hope the community realized the importance and developed a museum or historical monument/exhibit – in a library to city hall – at least to raise awareness. A responsibility to be the guardians of knowledge – even unpleasant local knowledge.

    1. My mandated Oklahoma history class was either 6th grade or junior high. I still remember about how the state was settled, the Five Civilized Tribes, the land runs, etc. The textbook wasn’t very big, but it was exclusively Oklahoma history. It’s possible, with the shortcomings of public education, that the textbooks were too old to have included an event from 1921. More likely, it was written and produced by white educators in a very segregated state. That doesn’t explain why the people on “60 Minutes” hadn’t heard about it either.

      1. Yep.
        What surprises me is that much of these historical events were also highlighted and showcased (in my world) in the ’60-70’s yet so few either noticed then or forgot completely by now. Here, it was a big raw emotional deal then, too. (Probably “nice” people didn’t discuss such things?…leaves me out)
        I’m a real fan of area locals giving walking history lessons down their neighborhoods and city streets. Far too easy for real history to disappear as people age and die – tales must be passed forward. History is stories and stories (of real people in actual familiar places) told seems to be the only way to really learn the past?
        Good story telling is way under rated. Maybe the problem is as a species, we have forgotten that skill and importance?

  2. Although I had read about this tragic event several years ago, I know it wasn’t part of the historical education I received in school. Growing up in Southern California, we also weren’t taught about the terrible treatment Native Americans received at the hands of the Catholic priests as they built their missions up and down our state. I recently read a book, Killers of the Flower Moon, that chronicles the treatment of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s. I’m curious if you learned about that in school. So much of our history goes unreported because it’s “uncomfortable” and doesn’t support the narrative we like to tell ourselves.

    1. No, nothing as modern as the 1920s. It was mostly about the Five Civilized Tribes being moved to Oklahoma, and the Osage were not among them. None were treated very well.

      A great shortcoming in my overall education is that all my history courses started in the distant past and moved forward in history. I don’t recall any that got past the beginning of WWI. There was no “modern” history. I hated history classes in school. They were little more than timelines and rote memorization of dates and events. Oddly enough now, history has become quite interesting.

  3. After learning about Greenwood a few years ago I wondered what my 16-year-old father must have thought about it at the time. 1921 was about the time he ran away from the military school his new step-father had sent him to in Oklahoma. That was the end of his formal education and he was forever after on his own in the world, He was a good and kind man who almost never talked about race or politics, in my presence at least, but I do remember him remarking disparagingly once about Nat King Cole’s “big lips.” Prejudice is absorbed from family and social contacts, like osmosis, and the only cure for it is education and the company of thoughtful people.

    1. Apparently, even in 1921, the story was kept very quiet. Lack of social media probably helped a lot. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your dad never heard about it. I agree wholeheartedly that education and the company of thoughtful people is the only cure.

... and that's my two cents