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Tulsa Public Schools To Launch New Curriculum For Teaching The 1921 Race Massacre

Chris Polansky

Tulsa Public Schools will begin rolling out a new curriculum for teaching the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre beginning in May.

"We want to make sure that we are accurate, that we are engaging, that we are teaching our students to think critically and that we are offering them materials, but we also are not going to shy away from the fact that we are going to bring critical and powerful racially aware, bring a racially aware lens to this context and to this," said TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist at a Feb. 22 Board of Education meeting.

"We are not going to flinch away from that, because this is our history and we are here to address it," said Gist, who noted that she attended TPS herself and did not learn about the massacre until later in life while working in Florida.

The curriculum presented to the board last month was aided in its design by the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Oklahoma Historical Society. It is crafted to begin in kindergarten, addressing concepts of community and community-building using Greenwood and Black Wall Street as models, and, over a student's years in the district through high school graduation, will build up to discussions about racial violence, white supremacy, gentrification, reparations and more.

Board member Pastor Jennettie Marshall expressed enthusiasm about the new lesson plans.

"Over these 100 years, for African Americans -- and I can only speak for African Americans -- we have lived in this city, we have given birth to our children and they've grown in this city, and we have walked around feeling that our pain and our history and, as individuals, we were invisible," Marshall said.

"So this district moving in this direction is a way of saying that we recognize the pain, we recognize the history, and we understand how vital it is to the growth of everyone, not just African Americans but everyone, that we can move forward and be better and do better," Marshall said.

Board member Dr. Jerry Griffin expressed concern that the curriculum could "indoctrinate" students, and that the curriculum committee should include a diverse array of viewpoints because the subject is "political" and a matter of "liberal versus conservative."

Board President Stacey Woolley replied.

"As a Native American student who never learned accurate Native American history in the United States, something only becomes political when it is from the perspective of the minority who has been persecuted," Woolley said. "This is not, in my opinion, a political conversation. It's not liberal or conservative. It's teaching real history, and that's what we're called to do: create critical thinkers.

"There's nothing political about this. This is a fact. We have facts about what happened during the Race Massacre, and my children, my older children, were never taught those facts. I was not taught those facts. The only place I learned about my own Native American culture was certainly not from textbooks that are in our kids' classrooms right now. We have to make sure that we are teaching history that shows our students that they are valuable, not just the history that white men have written."

The curriculum, which also includes interviews with figures such as historian Hannibal Johnson and the Rev. Dr. Robert Turner of Tulsa's Historic Vernon AME Church, will begin for students in grades 3 through 12 in May, and for younger students at the beginning of next school year. It will be incorporated into existing history and social studies lesson plans that, in some cases, use other cities to teach certain topics.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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