Home > Essays > Charles Blow’s NYTimes Essay on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre is a Subtle Rebuttal to Those Who Don’t Want to Teach “Controversial Issues”

Charles Blow’s NYTimes Essay on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre is a Subtle Rebuttal to Those Who Don’t Want to Teach “Controversial Issues”

May 21, 2021

Growing up, my my family lived in several different places because DuPont transferred my father. One of the places we lived for three years was Tulsa, OK, and, as a result, I attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School from grades 4 through 6. During those three years, the State required that children learn the history of Oklahoma. The history included the Trail of Tears the Cherokee’s followed to Oklahoma when they were displaced from the East, the cattlemen who grazed the steers and drove them to market, the land rush that opened the state, the brave and independent-minded settlers who came to the state during that time, and the impact of the discovery of oil fields under the open fields.  We didn’t learn about the massacre that occurred in the Greenwood section of town located 20 blocks away from our school, though, because it had been completely erased.

Charles Blow’s column yesterday described this erasure in the context of the GOP’s unwillingness to conduct a bipartisan investigation of the events of January 6 where a mob of Trump supporters unlawfully entered the Capitol and forced the closure of Congress. In recounting the massacre, Mr. Blow writes:

We are just weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, when in 1921, white citizens of that city — aided by the National Guard, it should be noted — destroyed the Greenwood section of that city, a prosperous, self-sufficient community known as Black Wall Street, killing as many at 300 people and leaving 8,000 others homeless.

One of the most remarkable things about that massacre was the concerted effort by the city to erase it from history, and just how effective that campaign was.

As one who learned “Oklahoma History” blocks away from the site of the massacre, I can attest to the effectiveness of the whitewash, a cover-up that lasted for decades, But when we overlook the negative parts of our country’s history we cannot learn from those episodes any more than an individual can learn from a mistake they made. If a child participated in a gang fight at school and that school didn’t report it to the police because they didn’t want to tarnish it’s reputation politicians would rightfully be appalled. But when the need to preserve the status quo is strong enough, political leaders and business leaders will circle the wagons and pretend an event never happened and take the steps necessary to erase it from the collective memories of the public.

As Mr. Blow notes, accomplishing such a feat was easier when there were no cell phones, tightly controlled news outlets and no broadcast news. But he also offers this telling analysis of human nature:

We sometimes underestimate human impulses and human nature when we simply assume that the memory of a thing, a horrible thing, will last forever.

Often the perpetrators of the offense desperately want to let the stigma fade, and the victim hesitates to pass on the pain of it to children and family. Everyone awaits the healing power of time, like the jagged rock thrown into the river that eventually becomes smooth stone.

That happened in Tulsa. The first full history of the massacre was not written until 1982 when Scott Ellsworth wrote “Death in a Promised Land,” and a commission to fully study what happened in Tulsa wasn’t established until 1997. Its report was issued in 2001.

We have a tendency to drift away from the fullness of history even when the truth isn’t actively suppressed. Think about things like how horrible Christopher Columbus actually was, or the massacres of native people and all the broken treaties that helped grow the geography of this country, or how many of the pioneers of gay rights were trans people and drag queens.

We are horrible transmitters of the truth. We are also horrible receptors…

…We absorb the stories we are told, too often without circumspection, imbuing them with the authority of the tell. So, when authorities tell a lie or diminish something, many people will accept it as told.

As a 5th grader in Tulsa I believed everything I heard and, to be fair, everything I heard was truthful. But I didn’t hear about the Tulsa massacre, about the mistreatment of native people who migrated into Oklahoma after they were exiled from the East, or the way the oil companies took advantage of landowners and workers to make a profit for themselves. Maybe the authors of the textbooks and developers of lesson plans in the Oklahoma Department of Education wanted to protect me from “divisive issues”.

Categories: Essays Tags:
%d bloggers like this: