OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – For decades, when it was talked about, killing hundreds of people in an affluent black business district was called the Tulsa race riot nearly a century ago.
Under new standards developed by teachers, students in Oklahoma are urged to reflect on the differences between labeling it as a “massacre” or a “riot,” as it is still described in state laws. Usually, ninth and eleventh grade students are encouraged to investigate survivors and learn their first-hand stories of the 1921 violence.
“If taught correctly, every freshman has a context for how and why things like this can happen in the United States of America,” said Aaron Baker, a history teacher in Oklahoma City’s Putnam City school district.
The state’s new standards go to schools because a national conversation about racial injustice brings new research into how African American history is taught nationally. Recent demonstrations of police brutality are also raising awareness to a major holiday that is not widely taught – Juneteenth. Celebrated Friday, it honors the day in 1865 when the last enslaved black people heard they had been liberated.
There is no national curriculum or set of standards for teaching black history in America. Only a small number of states, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, and New York, have laws that require it to be taught in public schools. States set their own standards and history research courses often cover slavery, reconstruction, the emergence of Jim Crow’s laws, and the civil rights movement.
Some experts and educators say that lessons in black history focus too much on violence and suffering, rather than the systemic aspects of racism and white supremacy, while others say the past has been purified.
In Texas, the Board of Education recently approved a course on African American studies that will be an elective course for high school students. A professor at the University of Texas involved in curriculum development, Kevin Cokley, said his students say they learn a purified version of black history in high school.
“When I teach about slavery and how brutal it is, and share specific details, most of my students – Texas residents – indicate that they have not learned the specifics of slavery I teach them in my course,” said Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies. “They are often shocked and angry because they find they have not learned the information I share with them.”
The Tulsa massacre took place over the course of 16 hours, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, when white gangs attacked black residents and businesses. As many as 300 people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless. Tulsa’s black business district, known as Black Wall Street, was destroyed.
Oklahoma schools have been required to teach the massacre since 2002, although some people thought it was not taught everywhere. Tulsa schools introduced new standards two years ago, using the state education service as a guide.
The massacre was largely not discussed in Oklahoma until a committee was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. The committee is headed by Senator Kevin Matthews, a Tulsa Democrat who said the new educational standards were not opposed, but some people would have preferred to leave the massacre in the past.
“Older people called me and said, ‘Why do you want to bring this up again, this dirty secret?'” He said.
Matthews said his grandmother was a young girl in Tulsa during the massacre, but never told him about the violence. He got to know it as an adult from his grandmother’s brother.
“It was like a movie, I couldn’t believe it happened here,” said Matthews.
LaGarrett King, director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri, said he believes there is too much emphasis in teaching black history on violence, which often targets racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in a way that does not explore nuances or apathy for black dead.
King last year trained 300 teachers across the country interested in teaching black history. He expects a virtual session this summer with more participants than usual. He said that growing interest makes him optimistic, but history needs to be reworked. The pursuit of diversity in education so far has led to primarily cosmetic changes, he said, without enough emphasis on the entry points and perspective of black history.
“White people don’t recognize Juneteenth, yet we should be a country that believes in freedom. We learned that July 4, 1776 is the real day of independence, but it isn’t,” said King. “The vast majority of black people was still a slave. ”
Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for Social Studies, said schools should prepare to help students answer questions about discrimination, protests and racist violence when they return in the fall.
“The idea” Do we have a curriculum that responds to the needs and experiences of the students we have today? “That’s an important question schools should ask,” said Paska.
Melia contributed from Hartford, Connecticut.
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