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Meet 3 educators on a mission to teach the truth about the Tulsa Race Massacre

"It's so important for our students to understand the dark history that exists. But it's also important that through that darkness there's hope."
/ Source: TODAY

It's been a century since a white mob descended on a thriving Black community in North Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing hundreds of people and destroying businesses, homes and generations of wealth.

Monday marks the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a devastating moment in American history when a racist mob killed hundreds of Black residents and completely destroyed 35 blocks of the community.

Earlier this month, ahead of the anniversary, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor, gave an emotional testimony before Congress and called for justice.

Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testified on Capitol Hill on May 19, 2021 ahead of the 100th anniversary of the massacre.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

While Fletcher gave a powerful testimony that made headlines, for many Americans, it was the first time they might have heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The events of that day aren't widely taught in schools, and some fear the atrocities suffered that day, along with the resiliency of the survivors, will be forgotten.

TODAY's Sheinelle Jones recently met with three educators in Tulsa who are trying to change that, along with some of the students who, for the first time, learned about what happened in that thriving Greenwood district known as "Black Wall Street."

Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics at Tulsa Public Schools, is part of an initiative working to bring the massacre out of the shadows and into the classroom.

"Do you know that there was a time when, right here, there were hotels and businesses owned by Black people? And that there were Black millionaires living right here?" she asked her students during a recent lesson. "That theater is not here anymore. That hotel is not here anymore. What happened?"

Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics at Tulsa Public Schools.TODAY

This month, for the first time ever, Tulsa public school students in grades three through 12 are learning about that fateful day.

Neves, who is a parent, said it simply wasn't acceptable that her son grow up in Tulsa and not know about such a tragic and historically significant event.

"Our students deserve not only to learn about their city, to learn about the history, but they're also going to be the people who are going to lead for reconciliation, lead for healing and lead Tulsa into its next great spaces," she said.

Kathleen Whigham, an elementary school principal in Tulsa, said the events in 1921 and the massacre's legacy need to be understood by future generations.

"We are named Greenwood Leadership Academy and so our specific history is grounded in the Greenwood neighborhood — Black Wall Street and what it stands for," she said.

Kathleen Whigham, an elementary school principal in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is making sure the events of 1921 are being taught to a younger generation.TODAY

Whigham said the key to making the heavy themes appropriate is to share lessons about how members of Black Wall Street were entrepreneurs and contributed to their community.

"It's so important for our students to understand the dark history that exists. But it's also important that through that darkness there's hope," she said.

Dan Hahn, a middle school principal in Tulsa, grew up in the community and said that many of his peers thought the race massacre was a myth. The plaques on the sidewalk tell a different story, marking all the businesses that were lost and the owners who were never compensated.

Dan Hahn, a middle school principal in Tulsan has been teaching students about the massacre since 2009 by taking them on educational tours of the Greenwood neighborhood.TODAY

"I think there are two reasons why it's been suppressed to the extent that it has," Hahn said. "Tulsa is always in a constant state of trying to build an economy based on people coming here, and things like this are bad for business. People don't want to admit that a city destroyed 10% of itself. And so people don't wanna talk about it.

"That was a time when a lot of stories like this got silenced across the country, because we needed to show the world that we were a strong nation that was united. And this is anything but that."

Hahn has been teaching students about the massacre since 2009 by taking them on educational tours of the Greenwood neighborhood.

Billowing smoke rises from buildings that were destroyed during the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Universal History Archive / Getty Images

"It is my job to point people to this story and to help raise a generation of kids that grow up saying, 'I didn't know about this. What else do I not know? And who benefits from me not knowing?'" Hahn said. "That's really the aim of education is to raise critical thinkers that think that way."

While not widespread, the massacre has been taught in some high schools since 2002. However, the educators who spoke with TODAY are starting the conversation with students much earlier. This comes as a bill was passed in Oklahoma prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, which tackles subjects like white privilege and racial equity in the classroom. While some lawmakers said this won't have an effect on how the Tulsa Race Massacre is taught, some people fear it could.

"If we want our students to be their very best selves in the future, one of the ways is to equip them with the critical thinking skills," Neves said. "(They need) to be able to say, 'Here's how I'm charting a path so that in the future, my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren have less hard history to learn.'"

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