Burned Out of Homes and History

Unearthing the silenced voices of the Tulsa Race Riot

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Research Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society

1921 photo of the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. (PHOTO CREDIT: RESEARCH DIVISION OF THE OKLAHOMA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)
In this article, Rethinking Schools editor and language arts teacher Linda Christensen describes a section of Stealing Home, a unit she created about ways the homes of people of color have been stolen through “race riots” and “urban renewal” in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine; and Portland, Oregon’s Albina neighborhood. This is the first of a two-part series about the unit.

I teach language arts, so why would I teach my students about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot? In language arts circles, we discuss reading as a window to the world, but in a country plagued with foreclosures and homelessness, we need to question the world we’re gazing at: How are contemporary evictions a historical reach from the past? What has happened to black and brown communities? Why do people of color have less inherited wealth than whites? The untold history—the buried stories—reveals patterns that affect our students’ current lives, from eviction notices to the hunger of deep poverty. I can wax poetic about the importance of story in students’ lives, but reading literature of poverty and despair without offering a historical explanation leaves students with little understanding about how things came to be the way they are. And that’s worth reading and writing about.

Jefferson High School, where I co-teach a junior language arts class with Dianne Leahy—a wonderful teacher who allows me to keep my teaching chops alive by creating and teaching curriculum with her—is located in a gentrifying neighborhood that once was the heart of the Af.rican American community in Portland. Families were pushed out of their homes because of urban renewal beginning in the 1960s and again, more recently, because of gentrification. As the price of homes rises in what is now called the “Alberta Arts Neighborhood,” most of our students’ families can no longer afford to live in our school’s neighborhood. They live in apartments on the outskirts of the city, and a number ride buses or the commuter train to come to school at Jefferson.

For me, learning about the history of the Tulsa Race Riot coincided with the current economic crisis that has led to epic foreclosures and evictions. I realized that, like many people, the majority of my family “wealth” is tied up in our home. We drew on that wealth to send our daughters to college. They will inherit the house, and the wealth it represents, when my husband and I pass on. The story of Tulsa may be an extreme instance of violent dispossession, but it highlights a pattern of historical expulsions and exclusions that explains the lack of inherited wealth in black and brown communities. According to historian Hannibal B. Johnson, “The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was set against a backdrop of a multitude of race riots in America. 1919 was known as ‘red summer’ because blood was flowing in the streets. There were over 25 major riots in 1919 in America.” (See Eliot Jaspin’s book Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America for more on this topic.) The complicit silence of textbooks about the history of race riots and racial exclusions that pushed black people off their lands and out of their homes keeps our students ignorant about the reasons for the lack of economic resources in the black community. Instead students must imagine why their people lack wealth: Unwise spending? Laziness? Ignorance?

The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, in Tulsa. Though some sources labeled the episode a “race riot” or a “race war,” implying that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for lawlessness and violence, the historical record documents that what occurred was a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others. During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans; they looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks, including 1,265 African American homes, hospitals, schools, churches, and 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen; 9,000 African Americans were left homeless and living in tents well into the winter of 1921.

Building Background Knowledge and Interest

In class, before we began the unit, I briefly discussed the arc of our upcoming study. “We are starting this unit because I want you to think about wealth in this country. Who has it? Who doesn’t? An important study just discovered that whites have 20 times the wealth of blacks. Why is that? When there’s a question that puzzles you, you have to investigate. For many people, including me, our wealth is tied up in our homes. So what happens when you lose your home?”

Students frequently bring up the gentrification of the neighborhood, which has rapidly transformed from mom-and-pop grocery stores to chic restaurants and upscale boutiques. Rather than describe the problem of gentrification at this early stage of the study, I move them into the history, keeping the question of homes and wealth in front of them as we move forward.

To stimulate our students’ interest in resurrecting this silenced history of Tulsa, I created a tea party/mixer about the night of the invasion of Greenwood, as the African American section of Tulsa was called. Using sources from historians John Hope Franklin, Scott Ellsworth, and others, I wrote roles for students that gave them each a slice of what happened that night: the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young African American shoe shiner, who allegedly raped Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, in broad daylight (later, students learn that authorities dropped all charges); the newspaper article that incited whites and blacks to gather at the courthouse; the gathering of armed black World War I veterans to prevent a lynching; the deputizing and arming of whites, many of whom were in the KKK; the internment of blacks; the death of more than 300 African American men, women, and children; the burning and looting of their homes and businesses.

Because not all white Tulsans shared the racial views of the white rioters, I included roles of a few whites and a recent immigrant from Mexico who provided safety in the midst of death and chaos. These roles allowed students to under.stand that, even in moments of violence, people stood up and reached across race and class borders to help. I invented one role, Thelma Booker, as a compilation of people I’d read about; the others were individuals whose stories I found in Ellsworth’s book, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and other materials. Three of the roles give a sense of the information students learned through the tea party/mixer:

Mrs. Jackson: A mob attacked my home and killed my husband on the night of June 1, 1921. My husband was a surgeon. The Mayo brothers said he was the best surgeon in the country. My husband fought off the mob that attacked our house. An officer who knew my husband came up to the house and assured him that if he would surrender he would be protected. This my husband did. The officer sent him under guard to the Convention Hall, where black people were kept for “protection” from the mob. While my husband was on his way to the detention center, he was shot and killed in cold blood. The officer who had assured my husband of protection told Walter White, the Nation journalist, “Dr. Jackson was an able, clean-cut man. He did only what any red-blooded man would have done under similar circumstances in defending his home. Dr. Jackson was murdered by white ruffians.”

Thelma Booker: The National Guard came knocking on our door and told us we had to leave our homes. They said it wasn’t safe and they were going to protect us. We didn’t feel too comfortable about that. Then they marched us through the white area of Tulsa, made us raise our hands in the air as we walked through as if we were going to attack someone with our house slippers. First, we were taken to the Convention Hall, then to the ball field, and finally to the fairgrounds, like we were prize cattle. You know, they even went and rounded up black folks who worked as domestics in white people’s homes. Oh sure, they fed us and gave us medical attention. And while our homes and businesses were looted and burned behind us, they made us stay until a white person came and vouched for us. Anyone who was vouched for received a card. Anyone without a card on the streets could be arrested. Of course, we had to pay for our food and all while we were being “protected.” We were sent out to clean up the city. We were paid standard laborers’ wages. It was by no means an easy existence, but some whites soon complained that we were being “spoiled” at the fairgrounds and by the attention given us by the Red Cross and other charitable organizations.

Ruth Phelps: Honestly, I couldn’t believe what was happening. We lived outside of the city along the road to Sand Springs, about a day’s walk north from Tulsa. We helped out the black folks running away from Tulsa. We hid and fed about 20 black riot victims in the basement of our home for most of a week. We believed that the Golden Rule applied whether people were white, black, or Native American. So when terrified and hungry black people came to our door, we hid them in our basement. I put an extra pot of beans and sow belly on the stove. Our house became a “safe house” for black Tulsans who were not imprisoned by the white authorities. Just like the Underground Railroad, blacks walked through the woods and along creek beds at night. Then we hid them during the day until it was safe for them to move on. We didn’t ask what happened that night in Tulsa. We knew by watching them huddle and cry in the basement that it was terrible. When we drove to Greenwood later and saw the burned down remains of their homes, we were glad that we offered sanctuary, so they knew that God lived in some white folks.

I briefly discussed the event before launching into the tea party. “You are going to become people who were involved in what is called the Tulsa Race Riot on the night of May 31, 1921.” I told them that Tulsa was divided into two sections—the white section and Greenwood, where most African Americans lived. We had studied Jim Crow, so they understood segregation. “I want you to figure out what happened that night. First, read over your role. Underline or highlight key pieces of information. You will need to be able to tell others about what happened to you and what you witnessed. Once you have read your role, turn over your paper and write down the key events, so you can retell them to your classmates.”

After students read their roles, I handed out a series of questions to help them elicit information from each other’s roles. We read over the questions, which included: “Find someone who suffered a loss during the riot. What did they lose? What happened?” Students found one or more questions that they could answer based on their role. Before I turned them loose, I added, “You are entering the roles of people whose lives may have been shattered on that night. Take their lives seriously. Give them the dignity they deserve.”

Students circulated through the room, talking in pairs, finding out bits and pieces of what happened that night. Because this was an introduction to the unit, not the full story, they ended the activity with information, but also with questions. I asked them to write down key facts they learned about the Tulsa Race Riot and what they still wanted to know. Their questions filled the class: What really started the riot? Did black people rebuild their houses? Why didn’t we learn about this before? (When I guest-taught this lesson in a history class at Jefferson a few years ago, a couple of students spontaneously pulled out their history textbooks and searched for an entry on Tulsa, but didn’t find one.)

History and Poetry

Rather than answer their questions in a lecture, I discovered several accessible readings and YouTube clips (The Night Tulsa Burned, Parts 1–4). Four short related videos, narrated by historians Scott Ellsworth and Hannibal B. Johnson and Tulsa Historical Society director Robert Powers, tell the story, using historical photographs from the night of the massacre. These clips also feature interviews with three survivors: Juanita Burnett Arnold, George Monroe, and Ernestine Alpha Gibbs. I asked students to take notes that answer the questions they raised in class, but also to record details and stories that resonated for them. “You will write a poem, a piece of historical fiction, and an essay about this time period. I want you to absorb the era as well as the facts. Write down the names of people, buildings, streets, parks. Grab people’s stories, their faces, and their lives. I want you to know what happened, but I also want you to try to understand how people felt about that night. As you learn about this history, make connections to what’s happening today. How does this history echo in your life?”

After watching each 10-minute video clip, we stopped and debriefed: “What questions got answered for you? What images stuck with you? Whose stories will you carry with you?”

Then I asked: “When we began this unit, I said that we were going to ask about wealth in our country: Who has it, who doesn’t, and why? How does the history of Tulsa help us begin to answer these questions? How does what happened in Tulsa connect to the question of black wealth?” As students talked, I listed their observations on the board as a reference they could return to during our writing.

Once we had images and names, I discussed two ways to write poems about the event—as a persona poem or an image poem: “For a persona poem, write from the point of view of a person or object. Use the word ‘I’. For an image poem, describe what you see. Form a picture for the reader with your words.” Christina wrote a persona poem from the perspective of a burned wall; she called it “The Last One Standing”:

I am the last one standing.
Nothing lives within me.
Nothing remains.
All around me are ashes of what used to be.
I am just a memory of what this
town was before the riot.
I felt the others burning down
on my left and right.
I saw the glowing flames in the midst
of this dark night and the leftover embers
of the morning.
Bodies scattered about,
blood on my stoop.
I am the last one standing.
I am the remains of this race riot,
never written in a textbook,
I hold one of history’s lost truths.

Reading and Writing Historical Fiction

As we pursued the Stealing Home unit, Dianne and I discovered If We Must Die: A Novel of Tulsa’s 1921 Greenwood Riot by Pat Carr. We wanted students to tap into the ways that literature can deepen history by bringing to life the mind-numbing numbers of loss through the stories of individuals. The novel tells the story of 1921 Tulsa through the character of Berneen O’Brien, a woman of “black Irish” descent, who accepts a job at a black school in Greenwood. She “passes” for black during the day and returns home to her uncle, who is a member of the KKK. The reader discovers the racial tensions and the eruption of the massacre from Berneen’s perspective.

Students kept track of historical events in their dialogue journal, but they also took notes on the author’s craft: the way Pat Carr showed how characters felt through the use of interior monologue, actions, and dialogue, as well as the strategies she used to mix historical fact and fiction. After students read a chunk of the book, they gathered in groups and created posters about the difference between history and fiction, using notes from their dialogue journals. The poster had three sections:

  1. Quotes that referenced history.
  2. Quotes that illustrated the qualities of fiction.
  3. Their analysis of the differences.

For the third section, one group wrote:

In the novel, fiction is often very detailed and elaborated, for ex.ample, “The shoulder of his white shirt suddenly blossomed red as if he’d run headlong into a sack of crimson paint.” Fact is usually subtle, using the names of people and place and events—Greenwood Avenue, Dreamland Theatre, the Drexel Building. Most events in the novel were factual—the shoot.ing, the looting, the internment—but most of the characters and their personalities were fabricated. There are things that the author says to describe a character that couldn’t be known—their body language, their speech patterns, their interior monologue.

As I teach social justice lessons, I am also always teaching students how to read and write with greater clarity. We don’t have to parse out the language arts skills and teach them as stand-alone lessons; they are part of the daily classroom work.

We asked students to write a piece of fiction based on their knowledge of the events, modeled on Carr’s work. Writing historical fiction pushes students to learn more about the past and to more fully understand the events and the time period. Students had to go back to the documents and videos to get down the sequence of events; they had to get inside people’s heads to understand why the African American World War I veterans stood up for Dick Rawlins, why they were adamant that there would be no more lynchings. But they also had to learn about people’s daily lives—where they lived, where they shopped, where they worked, and details like the fact that no one watched television in 1921.

To prime students for the assignment, we distributed a newspaper article written in 2009 that describes interviews with three survivors of the Tulsa riot—Beulah Smith, Ruth Avery, and Kenny Booker. The article reviews the events and contains quotes from the survivors:

Beulah Smith was 14 years old the night of the riot. A neighbor named Frenchie came pounding on her family’s door in a Tulsa neighborhood known as “Little Africa” that also went up in flames.

Get your families out of here because they’re killing [black people] uptown,” she remembers Frenchie saying. “We hid in the weeds in the hog pen,” Smith told CNN. . . .

Booker, then a teenager, hid with his family in their attic until the home was torched. “When we got downstairs, things were burning. My sister asked me, ‘Kenny, is the world on fire?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but we’re in a heck of a lot of trouble, baby.'”

Many students used these specific incidents in their stories. Some even used the dialogue from the article, then invent.ed the rest of the story.

Dianne and I developed a graphic organizer for students to get them started (see Resources). Then we spent part of a period listing potential characters and scenes that students could use in their stories: Kenny Booker, Sarah Page, Beulah Smith, Walter White, the NAACP journalist, Ruth Phelps. I also encouraged them to use pieces of their own lives in their stories. I told them, “In the novel I’m writing about women organizing for change on the Mexican border, I have the main character bake desserts when she’s stressed. I also tap into my own desire for justice, my work organizing. I found that when I use pieces of my life, the characters come to life.” Students who have experienced homelessness or evictions used their feelings of loss as they wrote. Desi, who is biracial, wrote her story from the points of view of two characters—an African American boy caught with his younger sister in the riot and fire, and the white girl who loves him. Jalean recreated his family—an older brother who lives with his mother and two younger siblings he adores. He also created a character mod.eled on the security guard at Jefferson, who has been a wise elder in Jalean’s life.

The student writing was stunning. Students invented backstories to help readers understand their characters’ histories and motivation. They used the tools of fiction writers—character development, dialogue, interior monologue, setting descriptions.

Desiree DuBoise’s story illustrates how students used the scenes from the photos of the city’s destruction, the voices of the people we studied, and the history of the time period to create their stories:

The sky rained down rivers of flame. I had always been the man of the house, but now Mama was probably long gone, too. She had gone into Greenwood to her floral shop that morning, and never came back home. I was alone in the attic except for Billy Mae. I looked down into her round brown eyes and saw fear that reflected my own. Her thick black lashes were coated with tears, and the only noise that came from her was a soft keening. She was so young, younger than I had been when the Klan took Pop away. I watched as they strung him up like an animal and beat him till every inch of his tall frame was coated with crimson blood. That was years ago. Now my sister had to watch her own city burn, the only place she’d ever known. She could hear the screams coming up from the streets just as well as I could. The floorboards of the attic creaked as I shifted my weight. My sister looked at me then.

“Kenny?” she said my name quietly. “Is the world on fire?”

I looked away. Outside, a thick black fog hung in the air, rising noxiously from thick fingers of smoke that danced and clawed their way towards the sky.

“I don’t know, Billy. But we’re in a heck of a lot of trouble.”

I looked to the window again. The last thing I would try to do in this world was protect my only sister.

“Billy, when we hit the street, if I fall, you run. No matter what, you keep running, OK?”

She nodded at me, tears streaming down her round, ebony-hued cheeks.

I grabbed her up and took the stairs two at a time. Around me, the world was aflame. Pictures of my family burned. My mother, a stunning shot of her in her white wedding dress was torched black, an eerie sight. I turned toward the front door, felt the hot breeze gusting through its gaping frame.

Dianne and I took our students to the band room, the only room big enough to comfortably accommodate all 42 of us, and students read their stories from the podium. The read-around took two days. As students read, those who were stuck or who couldn’t get started figured out a storyline; others were prompted to revise after hearing their peers’ details, flashbacks, and interior monologues. Although the students didn’t directly address the loss of economic wealth through their stories, they wrote about the impact of the devastation: the deaths, the loss of photos, pianos, houses, neighborhoods. Jalean said, “I felt proud to know that there were thriving African American communities. I feel cheated that I never got to live in one.”

Reparations Role Play

To inject hope and justice into the unit, Dianne and I created a role play about the efforts to obtain restitution for the deaths and damages suffered by the black population of Greenwood. We needed to return more directly to our theme of wealth inequality, to reinforce the idea that the injustices of the past affect the present, and that it’s never too late for justice— even many years after an event like the Tulsa Race Riot.

In 1997, the Oklahoma State Legislature authorized a commission to study the riot. After three and a half years of research, the commission delivered its report. Rather than just reading about the results of those proceedings and a 2003 lawsuit initiated on behalf of the survivors and their descendants, we wanted students to think about what “fair” compensation for the loss might mean. We put students in the position of commission members. We asked them to determine what reparations, if any, should be made to the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot and their descendants.

Before we started the activity, we reviewed the losses from that night—the deaths and the number of homes, schools, and businesses burned and looted. We gave students three choices to initiate their conversations:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Repay individuals and their descendants for their losses.
  3. Create reparations for the Greenwood community.

Students had passionate arguments about what should happen. Students’ understanding of the long-term impact of the loss of inherited wealth through the destruction of homes and community echoed throughout their discussions. A number of students repeated Aaron’s statement, “We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can compensate the offspring for the loss of their property and inheritance. At least give the descendants scholarships.” Some students felt that wasn’t enough. Desiree said, “Who suffered the most? Which was worse—death or property loss? The entire community suffered. We should choose a mixture of compensations: There should be scholarships as well as compensation for the survivors and their descendants. There should be a memorial day and a reburial of the mass graves.”

Sarah was afraid that bringing up the past would open old wounds and restart the racism that initiated the riot. Skylar said, “Who cares if it makes people uncomfortable? They are going to have to deal with it. These things happened, and we have to address them.” Vince and many others agreed. “This is not just the past. Racial inequality is still a problem. Forgetting about what happened and burying it without dealing with it is why we still have problems today.”

And this was exactly what we wanted kids to see: The past is not dead. We didn’t want to get lost in the history of Tulsa, though it needs to be remembered; we wanted students to recognize the historical patterns of stolen wealth in black, brown, and poor communities. We wanted them to connect the current economic struggle of people of color to dynamics from the past. We wanted them to see that in many ways Tulsa and other historically black communities are still burning, still being looted. We wanted to bring the story home.


The Tulsa Race Riot Tea Party/Mixer: Roles
The Tulsa Race Riot Tea Party/Mixer: Questions
Graphic Organizer