Dozens of teachers from thirty schools gathered in July for Tulsa Public Schools’ Tulsa Race Massacre Institute. The four-day professional development opportunity was created and led by Dr. Karlos K. Hill, professor and African and African-American Studies department head at the University of Oklahoma. During the institute, teachers had the opportunity to tour the Greenwood District and Reconciliation Park under the guidance of lead docent Vanessa Adams-Harris.
“The park gives a pathway of seeing if we choose to see,” Adams-Harris told the group as they began their discussion at the park’s entrance. She led them around Hope Plaza, where she posed questions to the group about what they saw in the statues that represent hostility, humiliation, and hope. Teachers split into groups to learn about the Tower of Reconciliation and reflect on the story Ed Dwight’s sculpture represents.
The group walked from the park to the Greenwood Cultural Center, making stops near Mt. Zion and the original location of Booker T. Washington High School to discuss their relevance to the massacre. The groups also toured Mt. Zion and Vernon A.M.E., hearing from pastors at each one.
“Today specifically was about helping them understand how the community, in particular, the residents of Greenwood, have made sense of this history, how they tell the story of the massacre, what they emphasize in telling the story,” said Dr. Hill.
Both groups explored the Mabel B. Little Heritage House before reuniting to discuss what they had learned that morning. Some teachers shared their experiences with teaching the history of the massacre to their students.
“I find it beneficial to be honest with my kids,” said Central High School poetry teacher Written Quincey. “They’ve written poetry about it and articulated their frustrations about the city that they live in, that they were raised in, that they are living in presently. For me, honesty has been the best avenue of educating them about the truth.”
Quincey said that his lesson on the massacre begins with an open discussion. Then, they watch a documentary and research the topic independently.
“A lot of the questions that I pose to them on this worksheet, they can’t find them. After about three minutes, they are like, ‘Okay Mr. Q, we can’t find it. I don’t know this one. It’s not in here. It’s nowhere on the internet.’ So, I’m like you have to check at least four to five sources, and those are not the only ways you can find it. You may have to make a phone call; you might have to ask your mom or dad to take you somewhere. This is your history. You’re not as disconnected from it as you think.”
According to Dr. Hill, it is important for teachers to consider the connections students have to this part of Tulsa’s history and how that impacts the way they approach the subject.
“Part of what we’re doing in the institute is talking about content, historical content related to the massacre. Another part of it is about process. How do we have equitable conversations in our classroom about this? What does an equitable conversation look like? What does a culturally-sensitive, culturally-responsive classroom look like?” said Dr. Hill. “Realizing that students come to these topics differently. Students are going to have different emotional responses to what is talked about. We have to realize that that matters. Bring that into the classroom in a way that doesn’t distract from but actually adds to the conversation. So, how do you create room for that? How do you give respect to that? How do you even encourage that?”
Hill said that the teachers at Tulsa Public Schools are already approaching the history in this way, but the institute helps reiterate the importance of it and continues to explore how to have these difficult conversations and incorporate it into the curriculum in a productive way.
“It’s an institute focused on being a resource for teachers and helping them go back to the classroom with a clearer vision, a greater confidence about having a dialogue about not just the massacre but race in general,” said Dr. Hill. “We hope that the experiences that they have, whether it’s the experience they had today or the experience of having dialogue and conversations with fellow teachers, all of that will promote that empowerment that they can do this and impact students in their classrooms whether they are teaching 3rd graders or 10th graders.”
Dr. Hill said the emphasis needs to be put on the victims of the devastation and how it is still affecting Tulsa today.
“We have to grapple with the living history of this massacre. How is this history still reverberating in the present and how do we deal with that right now in our classrooms? How do we deal with that in our community? Today is going to be about reflecting about that,” he said. “Tomorrow will be about the teachers beginning to make the leap from having learned a lot about the massacre, learned a lot about the community has understood the massacre, and it’ll be about how are we going to transmit this all to students.”
During the four-day institute, teachers also heard from author and historian Hannibal Johnson, who has written extensively about the Greenwood District, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre. Johnson is also a contributor on the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.