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What happened in Tulsa?

When Spencer Swindler hears people say that the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting or 2017 Las Vegas shooting is the largest massacre in U.S. history, he thinks, "Oh my God. We've got a lot of work to do."

The Mallard Creek High history teacher said there are many massacres, such as Wounded Knee or Black Wall Street, that have been forgotten or, even worse, not taught at all. As the world struggles with issues of racial justice, many Americans are just now learning about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. "This is a huge massacre that we just skip over in our history books," said Swindler.

A more well-known figure in Black history, educator and author Booker T. Washington dubbed Tulsa, Okla., Black Wall Street. "He visited the city and saw that there were Black-owned businesses and Black people of all different socioeconomic statuses," said Swindler. "There still wasn't an equal playing field for African-Americans. Once they cleared all those hurdles, the Black community was still seen as lesser than."

In 1921, shoe-shiner Dick Roland went in search of a public restroom. He ran into elevator operator Sarah Page. "She'd probably seen him before," said Swindler. "There's no way to know if he tripped or stepped on her shoe, but she started screaming that he'd assaulted her. But she didn't want to pursue it further."

Local newspapers started calling for Roland's lynching. World War I had just ended and troops were coming home. "This strong, Black community wouldn't just let them lynch Dick Roland," said Swindler.

 


A group of 75 Black men, some armed, arrived at the jail where Roland was being held. The sheriff persuaded them to leave the jail and they complied. As they were leaving, a shot was fired and chaos ensued. "The city started deputizing white people and giving them guns," said Swindler. "They have no training and now they have this instant power. They started destroying businesses. They dropped kerosene and nitroglycerin from planes. So much of the community was just destroyed."

The Oklahoma National Guard came to the city and declared martial law. More than 10,000 Black people were left homeless and many never financially recovered. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead after the riots, but many historians believe the death toll could be much higher. "Some estimate that anywhere between 50 and 100 people were killed," said Swindler. "Teachers don't need to feel bad that they haven't heard about it. We just have work to do."

Swindler sees many parallels between the events in Tulsa and the events of 2020. "There's a lot less apathy right now," he said. "COVID made us pay attention. George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel's back that was identical to the other straws that the camel was already carrying. We're isolated right now, and you have a nine-minute video showing this man being murdered. The camel was carrying as much as we could."

Social media has given people more opportunities to be informed and involved. "Many say the civil rights movement began in 1955," said Swindler. "Do you know what else happened in 1955? People started having TVs in their home. It's one thing to hear about people being spit on and arrested for sitting at a lunch counter. It is another thing to see it. If you see it, you're more likely to be involved if you have a conscience. Now multiply that times the millions of people who are watching social media. Everyone has the ability to record what they want. And everyone can tell their story."

Swindler has a poster from Teaching Tolerance on his wall that says, "I have the courage to teach hard history.

Swiindler said having that courage is critical for all educators. "This work requires courage," he said. "This isn't just about teaching. This is about how to create a better world to live in for the rest of my life."


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