June 19, 2021

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Teaching About the Tulsa Race Massacre With The New York Times

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed

One hundred years ago, a white mob in Tulsa, Okla., attacked and destroyed Greenwood, a neighborhood that had been one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country. The mob’s anger was in part a reaction to Black Tulsans who had come downtown to prevent a lynching, but more broadly it was inspired by a sense of rage at the success of the Greenwood neighborhood.

The New York Times pieced together archival maps and photographs to construct a 3-D model of Greenwood — home of “Black Wall Street” — as it was before the violence and destruction in May 1921. In this lesson, students will explore the neighborhood and learn about the devastating race riot. In the Going Further section, we provide three teaching ideas that invite students to explore the New York Times archive from 1921, consider what justice should look like now and discuss the importance of history and memory.

The New York Times Graphics Desk spent months trying to recreate what was lost in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

What do you notice about the opening text? What do the two sentences (copied below) reveal for you? What questions do they raise for you?

A century ago, a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., perished at the hands of a violent white mob.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.

What about the opening graphics — what do you notice?

Now predict: What do you think the rest of the interactive will be like? What kind of journey will it take the reader on? What information will it communicate?

The featured interactive article is divided into five sections. Use the guide below as you read the article and answer the questions:

I. Introduction

1. In the first two paragraphs of the introduction, the authors invite the reader to imagine:

Imagine a community of great possibilities and prosperity built by Black people for Black people. Places to work. Places to live. Places to learn and shop and play. Places to worship.

Now imagine it being ravaged by flames.

Start by doing that: Close your eyes and imagine that scene. Then consider: Why do you think the authors asked readers to do that? Do you think it is an effective writing strategy? Why?

2. The authors describe Greenwood as “a fully realized antidote to the racial oppression of the time.” What does that statement mean? What details do the authors provide to support that characterization?

3. What is meant by the sentence “The destruction of property is only one piece of the financial devastation that the massacre wrought”? Choose one statistic or quotation from the introduction that illustrates that point in a meaningful way.

II. The Marquee Block

4. Navigate down the 100 block in Greenwood, also known as the “marquee block.” What do you notice about the businesses and stores, as well as the professionals and entrepreneurs who lived and worked there? What stands out? How do you think residents or visitors might have felt walking down those streets?

III. A City Within a City

5. This section is titled “A City Within a City.” In what ways was Greenwood in 1921 a city within a larger city? How does the interactive illustrate the effects of the “economic detour” described by Hannibal B. Johnson, an author and the education chair for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission?

IV. The Massacre That Ended It All

6. According to the article, what was the event that mobilized the white mob? Then consider the larger context of racism at the time. Why might white Tulsans have targeted the community of Greenwood, “where Black success embodied the American dream,” with such brutality and violence?

7. How did you feel as you read this section that describes the massacre in detail? Did certain images or statistics stand out to you? Choose one number, phrase or quotation from this section that you found powerful.

V. What Was Lost

8. What happened to the survivors of the massacre? What was the impact on them emotionally and financially through property loss and racist policies? What support, if any, were they given?

9. What do the authors mean in writing, “The final insult of the massacre came in the silence”? In what ways is the silence an “insult”? Use examples from the article to support your answer. Why do you think this history is not more widely discussed? What are the repercussions of not sharing this history?

10. In the introduction, Brenda Nails-Alford, whose grandfather’s shop was destroyed, asked, “What if we had been allowed to maintain our family business?” After reading the article, what do you think? How might she and other descendants of Greenwood have experienced the world differently if their ancestors had not been victim to the riots?

11. What is your reaction after reading the article? What are you thinking or feeling?

Option 1: Explore original reporting from the Tulsa Massacre.

The New York Times first reported on the Tulsa Massacre on June 2, 1921. Start by looking at the headline from that day: “85 Whites and Negroes Die in Tulsa Riots as 3,000 Armed Men Battle in Streets” (PDF). What do you notice about the language and framing of what happened as it is articulated in the headline? If you were reading the paper in 1921, what would you have first assumed happened?

What assumptions might you have made about the event based on the word “riot” versus “massacre”? How does this difference in language change your understanding of the events?

Now read the featured article (PDF) from June 2, 1921, that details what happened, according to New York Times reporters. As you read, you can discuss the questions below in pairs or groups.

  • Who created this article? Who is the intended audience? How might different readers have responded to the language, framing and analysis?

  • When and where was the article originally created? What, if anything, do you know about the circumstances under which it was created?

  • In your own words, what does this article say? What do you think are the most important points in it? What perspectives, opinions and voices are included? What perspectives are left out?

  • How would you describe the language and tone of the article? Is one person or group depicted as initiating action versus receiving action or defending? How does this affect or change the narrative?

  • Reflect on the interactive article you read in this lesson. In what ways does this article from 1921 correspond with the information in the interactive? In what ways is it different? How do you feel about The Times’s original reporting on the Tulsa massacre?

Option 2: What does justice for the victims and their descendants look like?

This month the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Washington about the massacre. Watch the video above of the three known remaining survivors — Viola Ford Fletcher, 107, Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106 — testifying with their accounts of the attack.

What stands out to you about their testimony?

The Times reports:

The survivors are among the plaintiffs who have sued the city of Tulsa, claiming the city and the Chamber of Commerce tried to cover up the attacks and distort the narrative of what had happened, deflecting blame onto the Black victims and depicting them as instigators. They seek punitive damages, tax relief and scholarships for survivors and their descendants, along with priority for Black Tulsans in awarding city contracts.

Do you believe the victims of the Tulsa massacre and their descendants are owed anything? If so, why? How should they be compensated? If not, why not?

In her testimony, Ms. Randle said:

“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait,” she said. “Others have told us it’s too late. It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people. And we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”

What is your reaction to her statement? Is it “too late” to ask for justice?

Option 3: Discuss the importance of history and memory.

“The massacre lay hidden for decades. Educators did not teach it. Government offices did not record it. Even archival copies of some newspaper accounts were selectively expunged,” Ben Fenwick writes in “The Massacre That Destroyed Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street.’

Recently, there have been efforts to unearth this history, including the excavation of an unmarked mass grave of the victims; a commitment to teaching about the massacre in Tulsa’s schools; and the construction of a new history center dedicated to Greenwood.

Discuss the following questions with your class:

  • Why do you think this history has been “willfully buried” for so long? Why do you think that the people of Tulsa, and even some descendants of the victims of the massacre, did not know about this event that destroyed an entire community?

  • What is the importance of knowing the history of the Tulsa massacre? What can be gained from excavating the past now — and making sure that Tulsans and the rest of the country know what happened 100 years ago?

  • Who has historically gotten to tell (or not tell) this history? From what perspective have these stories been told? Who should tell this history?

  • How do you think this event should be remembered and memorialized? Should students learn about the massacre in schools? Should there be monuments, gathering places and museums dedicated to the victims and their descendants? What other ideas can you come up with?

  • What connections can you make between what happened in Tulsa 100 years ago and what is happening in America today? How can confronting this history help us address the issues of racism and racial justice we currently face?


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