The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) held a virtual panel discussion on Monday to discuss the Tulsa Race Massacre nearly 100 years after it occurred.
The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred on the night of May 31, 1921, bleeding into the next day. Thousands of white residents of Tulsa, Okla. stormed into Tulsa’s predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood, which was then known as the “Black Wall Street.” Almost the entirety of the Greenwood neighborhood was destroyed, as many as 300 Black people were killed, and thousands of others lost their homes.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, Christopher Ankney, director of marketing and public relations at the UMMA, said this event helps fulfill the UMMA’s commitment to anti-racism.
“We’ve made commitments to expanding our collaborative programs around issues of equity, anti-racism and social justice,” Ankney said. “We’ve also made commitments to open up Museum communications channels to the voices of diverse editors, curators and staff from other organizations. The Unearthing Tulsa event is one example of those commitments in action.”
Brent Staples, an editorial writer whose 1999 article in The New York Times Magazine brought significant attention to the Tulsa Race Massacre, spoke about his experience covering this massacre. He said that in the 1990s, he began to gain interest in important historical events that are not given the attention they deserve.
“It became very clear to me in the ’90s that my career would focus on (and) revolve around missing history in the United States and missing history as it pertains to African Americans,” Staples said. “35 square blocks of a city is destroyed … as many as 300 people died, and this event was a great conflagration in America, and within 20 years a silence and hush had fallen over it.”
Staples also spoke about how the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre was suppressed.
“On the Black side of the tracks, you know, parents (and) grandparents were terrified that if they talked about this thing, it might happen again,” Staples said. “On the white side of the tracks, people who had fathers, sons, uncles who participated in the carnage and the looting and the burning had a special interest in keeping it quiet to protect their relatives. And also the civic bodies of this city wanted to preserve the reputation of Tulsa as a good place to do business.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Scott Ellsworth, an LSA professor of African American Studies who was also a panelist and has written several books about the Tulsa Race Massacre, said he rarely heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre despite growing up in Tulsa and never formally learned about it until he was in college.
“Growing up in Tulsa in the 1960s, even as a 10 year old and 11 year old, I would occasionally hear older adults … discussing the massacre, and when you’d go into the room they would change the subject,” Ellsworth said. “When I was in ninth grade … I had to take an Oklahoma history class, and the massacre was not taught in my class.”
U-M alum Fred Conrad, another panelist whose photos of survivors of the massacre were published with Staples’ article, spoke about trying to “slow down” his work so he could be immersed in the history.
“I would generally choose to use larger format cameras to slow down the entire process,” Conrad said. “Partly it was out of respect for the subjects, but … I really wanted to slow everything down. I wanted to be able to listen to people’s stories. (I wanted to) make images that touched a chord in the reader’s of Brent’s story … empathetic portraits of the survivors so that people who read the story actually cared about them.”
Ellsworth said he was lucky to have been able to interview both children and adults at the time of the massacre.
“I was very lucky in that I was able to begin interviewing survivors in the 1970s, and (in that) I had people who were adults in 1921,” Ellsworth said. “(I also was able) to meet this other generation of survivors in the 1990s who were children (in 1921) and who brought a different kind of human face to the event.”
Staples said that it has begun to be more commonly understood that many parts of history are not taught in the U.S. education system.
“Even today you could probably go to college and you might know about the Tulsa Race Massacre, but you might not know what the collapse of reconstruction was like, (and) the reign of terror that led to disenfranchisement around the turn of the 20th century,” Staples said. “(Non-academics) are starting to understand how that period of time was so suppressed in education.”
Ellsworth said his work learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre will continue by excavating unmarked mass graves for victims of the massacre.
“We’ve been searching for the unmarked graves of massacre survivors off and on for about 23 years,” Ellsworth said. “This past October we discovered a mass grave at a city-owned cemetery in Tulsa … . On June 1 we’re going to begin the exhumation of that mass grave.”
Ellsworth also told The Daily about including many perspectives when writing books about the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“Obviously African American voices are central to the story – they bore the brunt of this horrific incident,” Ellsworth said. “I’ve been a bit concerned that it’s just being seen as a Black incident that just involves African Americans, and it doesn’t. Arguably as many whites participated in the destruction as African Americans who suffered through the destruction. So it’s not just a Black story. It’s an American story.”
Daily Staff Reporter Justin O’Beirne can be reached at email@example.com