At 107 years old, Viola Fletcher is the oldest known survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. She recounted to a congressional subcommittee last week the traumatic night when a white mob forced her family to flee their thriving Black neighborhood.
“I still see Black men being shot; Black bodies lying in the streets,” Fletcher said. “I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”
Centennial commemorations for the massacre, one of the worst known racial-terror episodes in U.S. history, are taking place in Tulsa this Memorial Day weekend. In Oklahoma, the site of the massacre, those remembrances will coincide with the recent passage of a law critics say threatens educators’ ability to teach about the massacre and other incidents of racial violence with transparency.
Oklahoma, Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas and Utah are among the Republican-controlled states to approve or consider bans on teaching “critical race theory” in public schools. Educators are concerned that these bills may encourage teachers to avoid lessons on difficult racial histories and hamper teachable moments on past and current events related to racial justice.
Critical race theory examines how systemic racism has resulted in persistent racial inequalities. But educators say it’s more often taught in undergraduate and graduate school.
The measures pushed by Republicans across the country are part of an ongoing culture war that found new life in the final months of the Trump administration. The former president prohibited federal agencies from referencing critical race theory or white privilege in government training programs and denounced the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine Pulitzer-prize winning series on the legacy of slavery. Earlier this spring, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced the Combating Racist Training in the Military Act to ban teaching critical race theory in the military.
A provision in the Oklahoma law forbids requiring courses or teaching concepts that make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the law earlier this month. It becomes effective July 1.
“If you have to teach a student that they themselves are racist because of the main color of their skin, you don’t need to be teaching,” said Republican state Sen. Robert Bullard, who sponsored the bill in the Oklahoma Senate. “That’s not teaching; that’s indoctrination.”
Bullard, a former history teacher, did not name a specific curriculum or school that’s taught critical race theory in the state.
Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, founded a summer program that trains middle and high school teachers on how to teach the history of the massacre.
“There are very few teachers in Oklahoma public schools who teach critical race theory in any significant way,” Hill said. “But that doesn’t stop conservative legislators from using that term that has united the conservative movement in opposition to teaching anything that’s really critical of American history.”
The critical race theory bills considered by state legislatures reflect fundamental differences in how conservatives and progressives generally understand racial and economic inequalities, said Celina Su, professor of political science at Brooklyn College.
Conservative rhetoric considers modern day inequalities as natural and inevitable. Criticism or even thoughtful reflection on U.S. history to improve the country is unpatriotic to them, Su said.
Progressives argue that justice is not a one-time historical event but requires ongoing work to maintain and achieve.
“If they’re trying to shut down these sorts of debates, in some ways that means they have some real spots of vulnerability,” Su said. “Critical race theory, for instance, if aired, if discussed among the larger public, could gain traction.”
For educators and opponents in Oklahoma, the new law raises numerous questions. Some are practical: How can educators teach history without inciting feelings of guilt? Others are more philosophical: Who’s entitled to feelings of pleasure? Whose discomfort is acceptable?
“It makes it seem like our history is optional and other people can simply opt out if they feel bad about it, while we don’t get to opt out,” said Alicia Odewale, a Black Tulsan and University of Tulsa archeology professor.
Fletcher’s successful Black neighborhood, known as Greenwood, was flattened by the white mob. How will this new legislation affect educators’ ability to teach her story? Fletcher told the House subcommittee that the event not only obliterated Greenwood but also robbed her of the chance at an education. She wasn’t able to attend school past the fourth grade. As a domestic worker, she never made much money and always served white families.
“My country, state, and city took a lot from me,” Fletcher said.
April Simpson is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @aprilleticia.
Read more in Inside Public Integrity
Dems consider bold ways to create a path to citizenship
The Biden administration faces an uphill battle as it pushes a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
‘The time is right’: Educator advocates for path to citizenship
A Q&A with an undocumented school administrator who says her work is important because it shines a light on the specific needs of Black immigrants.
Join the conversation