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Opinion: My great-grandmother survived the 1921 Tulsa massacre. We’re not heeding her history

My great-grandmother, Rebecca Brown Crutcher — a woman who was the picture of Black excellence — lived and worked in the Greenwood community. But in 1921, she fled in fear of her life as White Tulsans burned her neighborhood to the ground.

What was once the wealthiest Black neighborhood in America became charred ash in a matter of hours. 10,000 Black residents were left homeless — and an entire generation of Black Tulsans were robbed of their wealth and prosperity they had built. To this day, not one person has ever been held accountable and not a single cent of reparations has been paid to the survivors or the victims’ descendants.
Without this necessary reckoning with the past, we’re already repeating it. As Oklahoma and many around the world are preparing to mark the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, last month, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed a law criminalizing peaceful protesters and giving immunity to drivers who “unintentionally” kill or injure protesters. This law is, according to the count kept by the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, just one of 81 anti-protest bills introduced in 34 states during the 2021 legislative session alone — most of them framed as a response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. But instead of tackling the root causes of these nationwide protests against police brutality, racism and anti-Blackness, many lawmakers are attempting to intimidate, malign and criminalize peaceful protesters.

Laws like this one will undoubtedly have painful and long-lasting consequences in Oklahoma and the rest of the nation. Black, brown and Indigenous people will surely be locked up, ripped apart from their families, and may lose their jobs for exercising their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in a protest. They will surely receive harsher punishments for protesting police brutality and racial injustice than, for instance, White protesters demonstrating for gun rights or for their desire to control a woman’s body.

This isn’t the only bill introduced in Oklahoma this session that’s followed the Tulsa Race Massacre’s sinister legacy of suppression and erasure of Black Oklahomans. Half a dozen bills have already been introduced to restrict absentee voting and require identification to vote, echoing the growing trend of voting restrictions around the country. Historically in our state as elsewhere, these tactics have been used to disenfranchise Black and brown, poor and older communities and people with disabilities, with the precedent being set in one state and spreading like wildfire to the rest of the country.
On May 7, Governor Stitt signed HB 1775 into law, which will prohibit Oklahoma schools from teaching critical race theory — or in other words important lessons about systemic racism and diversity. The measure is meant to essentially stifle important discussions about, among other things, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Trail of Tears and the Osage murders in classrooms and beyond. Erasing our history, yet again, will have devastating consequences. And Oklahoma isn’t alone — bills banning or restricting the teaching of critical race theory have been drafted in Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and West Virginia and already passed in Utah, Arkansas, Idaho and Tennessee.
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Bills like HB 1775 attempt to obscure the fact that heinous instances of racial violence, from slavery to Jim Crow laws to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, are not blemishes on our history but consequences of discriminatory systems that continue to harm Black people today.

Such laws are designed to prevent a full and honest accounting of how systemic racism works. The bill says it will prohibit the teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” thereby upholding White supremacy and helping absolve the city of Tulsa and the state of the moral obligation of paying reparations to the survivors and descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre. HB 1775 also flies in the face of reality — as if the wealth and security stripped from Black Tulsans a century ago doesn’t have a direct relationship to the widening gaps in home ownership, education, life expectancy and arrest rates today.

Each of us should learn the hard lessons of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the continued harm shouldered by the survivors, the descendants and the neighborhood of Greenwood. We should learn that race, racism and discrimination have very real, concrete effects on our history, our culture, our politics and our current lives. But we can’t learn the truth or grow from it if it’s hidden from us — and that’s precisely what HB 1775 attempts to do. In so doing, this measure continues the harm of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, because a century later, Stitt and our elected officials are still trying to bury the lessons that our ancestors would want us to carry forward.

As a descendant of a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor, it’s painful to see Oklahoma’s governor refuse to learn from our history and acknowledge its continuing impact today. Instead, he’s chosen to saddle our teachers and educators with even more baggage, and potentially penalize them for doing what’s right.

My hope is that our teachers will look this evil in the eye and refuse to give in or back down. I hope they will continue teaching the truth about topics like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — including that it was borne from White supremacy, a mortal threat to our democracy that remains with us today. Our students deserve the unbridled truth, not a polished facade that makes us feel good about ourselves.

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