‘I Thought It Was a Fictional Movie’: 100 Years Later, Most Oklahomans Say They Never Received a Full Lesson on the Tulsa Race Massacre

A survey conducted by The Oklahoman found that many residents in the state didn’t receive significant exposure to the Tulsa Race Massacre while in school.

According to the results, 83 percent of the 305 people surveyed, most of them Oklahomans, had never received a full lesson on the Tulsa Race Massacre while in grades K-12. About 61 percent of respondents said they first learned of the massacre through the news while others said their initial came through a movie or TV show, friend or family member.

The results come 100 years after the atrocities that left an affluent Black community burned to the ground were first committed between May 31 and June 1 of 1921.

“That’s a very common experience of a lot of Oklahomans,” said Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public schools. She was an adult before she learned of the reign of terror and violence carried out by a white mob, after a Black teenager was accused of assaulting a white girl in an elevator. When a group of Black men showed up at the courthouse to defend the teen, who was barricaded inside the building with the sheriff, a fight ensued with a mob of white men, who followed the Black men back to the Greenwood district, where the carnage began.

Over an 18-hour period, white mobs attacked, burned and looted the thriving business district that had become known as Black Wall Street.

At least 300 people were killed and more than 800 were injured. More than 1,200 homes and 60 businesses were destroyed.

The media largely silenced reports of what had transpired.

Following series premiere of the HBO series “Watchmen” featuring Regina King aired in 2019, some viewers were shocked to find out they had never heard of the massacre. The episode opened with a sequence depicting the true story of the violence.

“I’m embarrassed to admit I had never even heard of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 before tonight’s episode of Watchmen on HBO. Even then I thought it was part of the show’s hyper violent alternative history,” one user wrote.

It was until 2002 that Oklahoma public schools were instructed to teach about the massacre, when it was added to the academic standards by The Oklahoma Education Department. Even then, the mention of the riot in the standards was vague.

Schools had to cover the history of “race relations” and “racial tensions” in the state, and while the massacre was offered as an example, schools could still bypass it altogether. In 2012, the standards in regards to the massacre were made more specific, and students in Oklahoma are now supposed to learn about the massacre in third, sixth, and 11th graded. Schools in Oklahoma City have adopted a curriculum established by the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and the Oklahoma History Center. But even some recent graduates say it wasn’t ever mentioned in the classroom.

Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews, now 61, first learned about the massacre in his 30s while watching a VHS film. “I watched it, and I thought it was a fictional movie,” he said. He calls the lack of education about the violence “a conspiracy of silence.”

Matthew continued,  “It was purposely not talked about. It’s almost like things that happen in your family that you’re not proud of — people don’t talk about it. I think it’s something our city and state aren’t that proud of and didn’t want to talk about.” 

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