As a history teacher, Joshua Vaughn was already familiar with many of the details of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
But Vaughn, who teaches Advanced Placement history at Ada High School, gained new insights into the massacre when he attended a workshop on the subject last month in Tulsa. For instance, he learned that the riot looked more like a war in its first few hours.
“There were World War I veterans,” he said in a June 28 interview. “They were African American and they were white, and they were fighting a battle.
“They were taking hills, and there were machine gun emplacements. That part, I wasn’t as much aware of. I didn’t realize that the black community decided it was not going to happen to them, and they fought.”
Oklahoma State University-Tulsa hosted the three day workshop in north Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, the site of a two-day riot that devastated the district in 1921. The workshop offered fifth- through 12th-grade teachers ideas and strategies for teaching students about the massacre.
Teachers attending the workshop drew on literature, writing, field trips and guest speakers to build resources that they could take back to their classroom. In addition, participants received books, digital resources and a professional development certificate.
The incident that sparked the massacre occurred May 30, 1921, when a black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator at Tulsa’s Drexel Building, along with a white woman named Sarah Page, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. The historical society said the details of what happened next varied, depending on who was telling the story — and the story became more exaggerated with each new version.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the next day and started an investigation.
“An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse, where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland,” the historical society said on its website, www.tulsahistory.org. “Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District.”
Early the next morning, white rioters looted and burned the district. Then-Gov. James Robertson declared martial law and National Guard troops descended on Tulsa.
The troops helped firemen put out fires, took African Americans out of vigilantes’ hands and imprisoned all African-American Tulsa residents who were not already in jail. More than 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds — some for up to eight days.
“Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased,” the historical society said. “In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.”
The massacre decimated the Greenwood District, known at the time as “Black Wall Street” because it was a nationally renowned hub for African-American business owners. The district was rebuilt in the years following the riot, then experienced a revival in the 1930s and 1940s before declining again.
Today, the district is home to 13 businesses, eight nonprofits, six city and state agencies and two churches that survived the 1921 riot, according to the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce-Tulsa’s Facebook page.
Vaughn’s AP American history class already includes a discussion of the Tulsa Race Massacre, he said. He said he shows his students a video about the massacre and tells them that it was part of a series of race riots that erupted across the country in the summer of 1921.
But after attending the recent workshop in Tulsa, Vaughn is rethinking his approach.
“I”m going to lengthen the amount of time that we talk about it,” he said. “I generally would just do it in one class period.
“At this time, I’m thinking about doing an entire week and working with other people in my department to try to put it in Black History Month so that we can really try to do something more to inform our students.”