I never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre when I was a kid. It never appeared in my history textbooks, and it never once came up in classroom discussion.

But it happened. One hundred years ago last week, as the prevailing story goes, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, who was Black, left his shoeshine stand to use a racially segregated restroom in a nearby building. Upon entering the building’s elevator, he stumbled and inadvertently grabbed the arm of Sarah Page, the 17-year-old elevator operator. So startled was Page, who was white, that she screamed.

A nearby store clerk called the police, and Rowland was arrested the next day for assault. Rumors of a lynching spread quickly through town. Dozens of Black men from Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood district, also known at the time as “America’s Black Wall Street,” converged on the jail, as did a throng of white men. Shots rang out. Twelve people died.

By the time it was over two days later, Greenwood had been burned to the ground. An estimated 150 to 300 of its residents lay dead, and hundreds more were injured. Upwards of 10,000 Black people were displaced.

Well worth remembering, huh? Yet as a kid growing up just four decades later, I heard not a peep about it.

That uncomfortable realization followed me around last week as I watched and read about the 100-year commemoration of a travesty that these days would be front-page national news for months. (See: murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, May 25, 2020.)


At the same time, I found myself mystified by two local outgrowths of the latest far-right rallying cry: We shouldn’t teach the full, unvarnished history of racism in this country because it will make white kids feel bad about themselves.

That head-in-the-sand notion was embedded in illegal signs recently planted all over Portland by a group calling itself Concerned Ethnic Fathers, who want people to vote against the city’s school budget Tuesday.

Their beef: The $125.2 million package contains $2.9 million in new spending on making the city’s schools more equitable for English Language Learners, children of color, special education students and others who otherwise might slip through the cracks of Portland’s education system.

Concerned Ethnic Fathers – who so far haven’t had the guts to identify themselves – also have a problem, as stated on their Instagram page, with “our school board pushing Critical Race Theory disguised as ‘equity.’”

Critical Race Theory, which dates back more than 40 years, centers on the belief that racism, far beyond the prejudices and bigotries displayed by individuals, is in reality a social construct that has woven itself over the centuries into our laws, our politics and our social policies.

It’s also the latest target of many on the right who complain that, as modern-day white Americans, they find it insulting.


Northward we go to Cumberland, where Shawn McBreairty, the father of twin girls who graduate today from Greely High School, has been beating the Critical Race Theory drum for the past year and, in the process, causing much unpleasantness in his hometown.

McBreairty plastered the town this spring with signs saying “Fire Porter,” referring to local school Superintendent Jeff Porter. McBreairty has been banned from setting foot on school grounds for a variety of transgressions – including placing fliers on students’ desks without permission – although he was given  permission to attend his daughters’ graduation today.

McBreairty’s antics scored him two appearances on Fox News last week – “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “The Faulkner Focus.” During the latter, he told host Harris Faulkner that Cumberland schools are “teaching young kids, as young as kindergartners, to essentially hate their white skin.”

Of course, they’re doing nothing of the sort. But behind that claim by McBreairty and his ilk lurks a deep insecurity, an apparent inability to take an honest look at where this country is and, equally important, how we got here.

Three years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report titled “Teaching Hard History.” It examined the disconnect between what happened during critical moments in U.S. history and how school textbooks and curricula tend to whitewash some narratives – if they include them at all.

To wit: A survey on which much of the report was based found that only 8 percent of the high school seniors polled could pinpoint slavery as the fundamental cause for the Civil War.


Similarly, only 32 percent of the students correctly said that slavery in the United States officially ended with the 13th Amendment. Thirty-five percent erroneously cited the Emancipation Proclamation.

Moving to the head of the classroom, teachers told the researchers that their favorite lesson by far when it came to slavery was the Underground Railroad. Not so much when it came to discussing conditions under which slaves lived or the line of white privilege that runs directly from then to now.

One unidentified Maine teacher who participated in the survey said he finds it “very difficult to convey the concept of white privilege to my white students. While some are able to begin to understand this important concept, many struggle with or actively resist it.”

Why is that? Where in those kids’ life experiences do they develop this sense that they don’t have it any better than kids of different colors or cultures – when in fact they do?

Maybe they learn it from their parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from generations of history texts that fixate on America’s triumphs while skipping over its tribulations.

In his preface for “Teaching Hard History,” Hasam Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, wrote eloquently of the price we all pay when we bask in the “Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy.”

That would explain why I, and countless others, had to wait until we were well into adulthood before we stumbled across the horrifying story of what descended on Tulsa a century ago.

It also demonstrates why, when it comes to finally coming to grips with the complete, unabridged American story, there’s no time like the present.

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