A Reflection on Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre

Written by Saheli Nath, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Management — 

This book is a fascinating work highlighting the contradictions between history and memory. In this book, Krehbiel describes the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and discusses the antecedents and consequences of the tragic event that left somewhere around ~300 African Americans dead (estimates unknown and widely varying) and destroyed Tulsa’s prosperous “Black Wall Street” in the neighborhood of Greenwood. Conservative estimates indicate that over 1,400 homes and businesses were burned, and approximately 10,000 people were left homeless. Interestingly, despite the violent and atrocious nature of the massacre, the Tulsa race massacre had almost disappeared from history books until the late 1990s, and remained consistently absent from the texts used to teach children in Oklahoma.

Krehbiel’s book reminded me of Zerubavel’s (2012) pioneering work to conceive history as a social construct and to map the structure of collective memory by unpacking the cognitive patterns we use to organize the conflicting interpretations of history. The recent focus on the Tulsa Race Massacre on the eve of its centennial seemed reminiscent of Zerubavel’s (1995) concept of “recovering roots” wherein nations or states desirous of new pasts create new ways of commemorating and recasting select historic events. Apropos of the Tulsa Race Massacre, shedding light on the “true events” required collaboration among politicians, writers, and educators, particularly as many documents on the official inquiry into the massacre were sealed from the public or destroyed. In analyzing the massacre, we come across competing interpretations of key details and opposing moral claims on our past actions. But how we understand the massacre today and perceive associated meanings are deeply affected by our current social environment (see Zerubavel, 2009), whereas the way in which our predecessors thought about the massacre was impacted by their extant social environment. The so-called skeletons of the past seem heinous today.

While over the last two decades we have been exulting in the progress on systemic and institutional racism, the events of the past year against African and Asian-Americans have once again brought to the forefront difficult questions about racism in the United States. Teaching about race in the classroom means having difficult and uncomfortable conversations. However, analyzing events like the Tulsa Race Massacre provides a good segue into these discussions. A class exercise that lets students collect primary and secondary information on the Tulsa Race Massacre and enables them to make their own interpretations using this data can help enhance critical thinking about race. Social service-oriented class projects involving work with Black organizations can allow students to get hands-on experience with challenges facing minorities. While speaking about racism with statistics is powerful and discussing racism using narratives or stories is compelling, what truly makes a lasting difference is changing self-cognition through one’s own personal experience and analysis.

References

Zerubavel, Y. (1995). Recovered roots: Collective memory and the making of Israeli national tradition. University of Chicago Press.

Zerubavel, E. (2009). Social mindscapes: An invitation to cognitive sociology. Harvard University Press.

Zerubavel, E. (2012). Time maps: Collective memory and the social shape of the past. University of Chicago Press

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