Tom Hanks says 1921 Tulsa Race Riots were systematically ignored calls for movies to portray burden

Filmmaker and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks has written an op-ed calling on schools to teach students about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, calling it a ‘tragic omission’ from history curriculum.

Hanks, writing in the New York Times, said in addition to being an avid documentary watcher, he had about four years of American history classes between elementary school and community college. 

‘But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla,’ Hanks wrote.

‘My experience was common: History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out,’ he continued. 

Tom Hanks is urging Americans to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Writing in a guest essay for The New York Times Hanks urged schools to stop efforts to 'whitewash' American history

Tom Hanks is urging Americans to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Writing in a guest essay for The New York Times Hanks urged schools to stop efforts to 'whitewash' American history

Tom Hanks is urging Americans to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Writing in a guest essay for The New York Times Hanks urged schools to stop efforts to ‘whitewash’ American history

‘Until relatively recently, the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine. I knew about the attack on Fort Sumter, Custer’s last stand and Pearl Harbor but did not know of the Tulsa massacre until last year, thanks to an article in The New York Times.’

After the massacre on May 31 – June 1, 1921, Thousands of survivors were forced for a time into internment camps overseen by the National Guard. 

Burned bricks and a fragment of a church basement are about all that survive today of the more than 30-block historically-black district.

Hanks noted that American history classes commonly talk about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Ku Klux Klan and Rosa Parks, but not the Tulsa Race Massacre.

White rioters stormed Greenwood and killed black residents, looted business and burned building and homes to the ground

White rioters stormed Greenwood and killed black residents, looted business and burned building and homes to the ground

White rioters stormed Greenwood and killed black residents, looted business and burned building and homes to the ground 

‘Tulsa was never more than a city on the prairie. The Oklahoma Land Rush got some paragraphs in one of those school years, but the 1921 burning out of the Black population that lived there was never mentioned. 

‘Nor, I have learned since, was anti-Black violence on large and small scales, especially between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement; there was nothing on the Slocum massacre of Black residents in Texas by an all-white mob in 1910 or the Red Summer of white supremacist terrorism in 1919. 

‘Many students like me were told that the lynching of Black Americans was tragic but not that these public murders were commonplace and often lauded by local papers and law enforcement.’ 

He also wrote that when the phrase systemic racism in America is brought up, there is often a strong reaction by people who believe every American has been free since July 4, 1776.

‘Tell that to the century-old survivors of Tulsa and their offspring. And teach the truth to the white descendants of those in the mob that destroyed Black Wall Street,’ he wrote.

Hanks concluded saying the Tulsa Race Massacre should be taught in schools and to ‘stop the battle to whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students. America’s history is messy but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people.’

Historians estimate that as many as 300 black people died in the massacre after a white mob descended on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, which was nicknamed Black Wall Street

Historians estimate that as many as 300 black people died in the massacre after a white mob descended on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, which was nicknamed Black Wall Street

Historians estimate that as many as 300 black people died in the massacre after a white mob descended on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, which was nicknamed Black Wall Street 

He added: ‘How different would perspectives be had we all been taught about Tulsa in 1921, even as early as the fifth grade? Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered.’   

The op-ed comes as an ideological and legislative battle is occurring across much of the country over teachings about race in public schools.

At least 16 states are considering or have signed into law bills that would limit the teaching of certain ideas linked to ‘critical race theory,’ which seeks to reframe the narrative of American history. 

Its proponents argue that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race and that the country was founded on the theft of land and labor.

Republicans have said concepts suggesting that people are inherently racist or that America was founded on racial oppression are divisive and have no place in the classroom.

The National Education Association and the National Council for the Social Studies oppose legislation to limit what ideas can be presented inside a classroom.

THE 1921 TULSA MASSACRE: THE FIREBOMBING OF ‘BLACK WALL STREET’ IN GREENWOOD 

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of 10,000 white men descended on the community of Greenwood in Tulsa and attacked black residents and burned businesses.  

Many of them had weapons and some were deputized by city officials. It led to the worst act of racial violence in US history, with more than 800 people taken to hospital and 6,000 black residents interned in buildings across the city.

The final death toll has never been confirmed, with estimates ranging between 75 and 300 fatalities. Around 10,000 black residents were left homeless and the firebombing caused more than $1.5millon in damage.  

A group of National Guard Troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African American men to the detention center at Convention Hall

A group of National Guard Troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African American men to the detention center at Convention Hall

A group of National Guard Troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African American men to the detention center at Convention Hall

After World War I, Tulsa was recognized for its affluent African-American community known as the Greenwood District.  

The community was often referred to as the ‘Black Wall Street’ because of its thriving businesses and residential area, but in June 1921, the community was nearly destroyed during the Tulsa Race Riot. 

The area was fraught with racial and political tensions with servicemen returning from fighting in Europe, the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan and the memory of the end of the Civil War in 1865.

There was also an economic slump in Tulsa, that drove up unemployment, and increased tensions between white veterans and professional, well-educated African-Americans who populated Greenwood. 

In 1919, the ‘Red Summer’, industrial cities in the Midwest and Northeast experienced significant race riots because of the tensions.   

The events leading up to the riot began on May 30, 1921, when a young black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator with a woman named Sarah Page. 

The details of what followed vary from person to person and it’s unclear what actually happened, but Rowland was arrested the next day by Tulsa police, with reports suggesting Rowland assaulted Page.

The police questioned Page and determined Rowland assaulted her, even though a written account has never been produced backing her claims.  

During the Tulsa Riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot

During the Tulsa Riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot

During the Tulsa Riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot

Subsequently, a report in the Tulsa Tribune dated May 31, 1921 was published that night with an accompanying editorial stating that a lynching was planned for that night.

Hundreds of men then gathered around the jail where Rowland was being held. They encountered a group of black men who were supporting Rowland. 

This started a confrontation between black and white armed men at the courthouse, with the white men demanding that Rowland be lynched while the black men tried to protect him.

During a struggle between two men in the mobs over a gun, shots were fired and a white man was shot, causing the the African-American group to retreat to the Greenwood District.

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by an estimated 10,000 white rioters, who flooded into the streets shooting residents. Planes also reportedly dropped incendiary bombs on the area.

Many of the white mob had recently returned from World War I and trained in the use of firearms, are are said to have shot Black Americans on sight.

Pictured: Part of Greenwood District burning during the Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, June 1921. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The picture caption above says 'Burning of Church Where Ammunition was Stored-During Tulsa Race Riot-6-1-21'

Pictured: Part of Greenwood District burning during the Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, June 1921. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The picture caption above says 'Burning of Church Where Ammunition was Stored-During Tulsa Race Riot-6-1-21'

Pictured: Part of Greenwood District burning during the Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, June 1921. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The picture caption above says ‘Burning of Church Where Ammunition was Stored-During Tulsa Race Riot-6-1-21’

In addition, more than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed, and nearly 10,000 people were left homeless. 

The riots lasted for two days, and Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops were called in to Tulsa. 

During the riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot – mostly Black Americans -and more than 800 people were treated for injuries.

Bodies were buried in mass graves while families of those who were killed in the riots were held in prison under martial law according to Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian, in December.

The families of the deceased were never told whether their loved ones died in the massacre, or where they were buried, and no funerals were held. 

Until the 1990s, the massacre was rarely mentioned in history books, and in 2001, the Race Riot Commission was organized to review the details of the deadly riot. 

 Source: Tulsa History.org

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