The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is calling on Governor Kevin Stitt to veto a bill that would outlaw teaching topics like historic and systemic racism in a way that could cause discomfort. The commission’s project director Phil Armstrong spoke with Public Radio Tulsa's Chris Polansky about why they’re speaking out and how it may affect their currently under construction Greenwood Rising History Center.
PUBLIC RADIO TULSA: So, in your open letter to the governor you say you are not a political group. So how is it that you came to determine that you wanted to speak out like this?
PHIL ARMSTRONG: I wanted to make that clear. We are bipartisan. We have Republicans, we have Democrats, we have independents, we have rich, poor, Black, white, red, brown. It's a consensus and it's a community collaborative consensus, and I want to make that point, that we still are.
But any policy, any legislation, or anything that would directly threaten or harm the programming and mission of what our work is, it is our obligation then to at least say something. This is not an attack, this is not a targeted attack. It is simply bringing to the awareness to the mass general public of Oklahoma that there is some policymaking taking place that can have some serious consequences -- not just on our history, but any history or any museum or any educational experience that may be deemed, quote, "uncomfortable," unquote, will have some consequences.
It's not just a Black Wall Street history museum. I mean, this can be applied to the Sherwin Miller Jewish Museum. That's information about the Holocaust that children -- in fact, my children back in the third grade at Jenks, I was a parent chaperone that took children from Jenks, third and fourth grade, to learn the Jewish culture and the history, and that included the teaching of the Holocaust. If this legislation was state law back then, there are parents and people, if they wanted to take an extreme stance, could sue the school, could sue the teacher, because "You're making my child feel uncomfortable by teaching them history that's not good, that's not a feel-good moment type of history." So this has far-reaching consequences because of how poorly that it's been written and it's so vague, those who really want to use it to separate and to keep people from learning about history that's uncomfortable can use it as an arsenal.
PRT: Do you have a stance, or do you have an understanding, even of -- do you think the legislature, you know, had malicious or racist intent when they were passing this? Do you think they were coming at it from a good place but they screwed up by how vague it is or how far it goes? What's your understanding there?
ARMSTRONG: I can't speak to the intent or the heart of what certain legislators were doing when they were thinking of this. But it is eerily consistent with some of the backlash all around the country in some state legislatures that are, what seems to be a backlash to the results of the election and that Biden is in place and that there is this swing of fear, this anxiety and fear that things are being taught that may brainwash my child, or make people think about ways to, quote, "hate America," unquote. And I think this type of legislation is just a backlash, a kneejerk reaction, for a fear that things are going to be taught or we're going in a direction that threatens certain individuals and threatens a certain look of history. And I just totally disagree with that, obviously.
We teach all aspects of history, things that were not taught in the history books, things that many of us, Black and white, specifically speaking to this history -- I have Black and white citizens on a daily basis come up to me and say, "Did you know the first time I heard about Greenwood and these all-Black towns and the massacre that I was a college student in a college history class outside the state of Oklahoma?" And they say the same things: "I was embarrassed because I'm sitting in a class seeing these images and this history and people are looking at me saying, 'Hey, what happened in Oklahoma?' And I have to sit there and say I have no idea what this is. I don't know what this is."
And then they talk about how they were shocked and got angry: "Why did I have to be a grown adult and leave Oklahoma to find out about this aspect of history when I went to public school in Oklahoma and don't even know about it?"
So those are the things that people, Black and white, today, say, "You know what? It's a shame that I was not taught this. And it would not have taught me to hate Oklahoma or hate America, it would have given me a perspective of history: the good, the bad, and every aspect of it." But just to not be taught it just because nobody wanted to feel uncomfortable is a shame. It really is a shame.
PRT: Are you feeling optimistic that the governor could veto this? Are you pessimistic but this is a Hail Mary?
ARMSTRONG: I'm not looking at it from a pessimistic or optimistic view. I'm looking at it from simply, whatever decision is being made, let people be informed of a decision. Let us not wake up one morning and say, "Oh my gosh, I didn't even know they even passed a law that would..." -- it's almost as if this is being done so that most people are completely unaware of it and then you'll wake up and find out, a teacher finds out that they're being sued by some parent and not even know that, "I can't teach history that makes students feel uncomfortable."
We wouldn't be able to teach about the Civil War if this actually gets enacted. So I'm just hoping that level heads within both sides of our [legislature] can say, "You know what, let's go back and take a look at this. There's some, we need to apply some more direct language to this." Because there's aspects that we agree with. When it says that the teaching that no race is any more superior than any other race, and no sex or gender is more superior than another -- we wholeheartedly agree with that. But guess what? There's already law, there's already state law that says that. So what is it that this bill was trying to accomplish? And hopefully the governor and others will be in a position to say, "Let's go back and rewrite this so that it has a little more greater understanding and is not left out there so vague that someone can take advantage of it just to keep people from learning any bad history about Oklahoma.
PRT: My last question for you, Phil: Say we hang up in a minute and in an hour we get a press release that the governor has signed this. What are your next steps? What does that mean for the commission and the history center and Oklahoma?
ARMSTRONG: Our mission just becomes that [much] more adament. The fire with which we stand -- and when I say fire I mean that in the inspiration has that the world needs to be educated and enlightened and come together over this history -- just becomes even more, just gives us even more vigor to make sure that that happens even more. And we may have to adjust, we may have to make some adjustments to how that's done, but it just gives us an understanding of how important this is and that we must continue this work, because it is incredible the amount of people that have coalesced around this, Black and white. It is breaking down barriers. It is causing people to have conversations. It is causing people to reach out to others that they probably would not have before. We've seen what this can do, and it's just going to give us even more energy to continue on.
Gov. Stitt's office did not respond to a request for comment about the bill.