Equity is Fostered Through What We Teach and What We Don’t
An examination of social studies textbooks reveals large gaps in a commitment to equity. Teachers can begin to counter this by incorporating curriculum that is culturally responsive.
There are many ways that educators can interrupt inequities and build equitable schools. We can disaggregate classroom and school data to see which groups of students are thriving in our school and which are not.
We can incorporate instructional practices that are culturally responsive. We can reflect on our teaching practices and identify our own implicit biases. We can examine the curriculum we offer students -- we can look at what we teach and what we don't.
An examination of our history and social studies curriculum reveals large gaps in a commitment to equity. There are gross distortions in the depictions of some groups of people -- particularly of people of color -- and there are entire histories that have been left out of our history books, again, particularly the histories of people of color. We will not have equitable schools until a great many experiences are included in history texts and curriculum.
I want to share a story, a very true story, that has been omitted from history and collective memory for far too long. Of the many stories I could choose from (unfortunately, there are far too many) I'm telling this story because so few know it.
The Tulsa Greenwood Massacre
Had you walked through Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood in 1921, you would have seen an economically thriving African American community within a segregated city. You would have seen restaurants and clubs, furniture stores, doctors' offices, hospitals, and schools. You would have seen lovely, large homes inhabited by people, many of whom had left the South and settled in Oklahoma where there was land, where lynching was less widespread than in the South, and where there was work.
Many African American men, willing to tolerate the filthy and dangerous oil fields, prospered in the oil boom. Because of this community's prosperity, the African American Greenwood neighborhood was unique in the United States.
300 Killed, 8,000 Left Homeless
And then on Memorial Day, 1921, Tulsa's white citizens attacked the Greenwood residents. Thousands of armed white men invaded the neighborhood, indiscriminately killing people, looting their businesses and homes, and burning their community to the ground. The city government provided machine guns and bayonets to the rampaging white Tulsans, as well as airplanes. The attackers flew over the neighborhood, shooting at the residents and bombing their homes and businesses.
Within a few days, an estimated 300 African Americans were killed, 8,000 Greenwood residents were left homeless, and almost 2,000 buildings were burned to the ground. Survivors were rounded up and interned by the National Guard. Many of the homeless spent the following year living in tents pitched in the ruins of the neighborhood.
Erased From History
Soon after, the story essentially disappeared. It was buried so deeply that people who were born and raised there, including mayors and district attorneys, said they had never heard of the attack until recent decades.
The survivors were traumatized. Terrified that their children would fear another massacre, they did not speak of what had happened -- not with each other and not to their children. The survivors rebuilt, but Greenwood never returned to its former prosperity.
Transforming Curriculum: Inclusivity
This event, known in most places as the "Tulsa Race Riot," is omitted from far too many history books. While Pearson mentions the event in its textbooks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill do not. It was not until 2012 that students in the Tulsa Public Schools began learning about the "Race Riot."
If we are to build truly equitable schools, the story of the Greenwood Massacre -- and other similar events -- must be included in our textbooks and curriculum. Silence implicitly condones the perpetrators and shames the victims. Silence, denial, and omission also prevent us from having the conversations that our country needs in order to reconcile with our past and heal our traumas.
It is an act of social justice to include the histories of those who have not had access to the power and resources to tell their own stories. Educators committed to equity can find ways to include this history -- and others that haven't been told -- and they can find ways to invite their own students and their families to tell the stories they want to tell about who they are and their histories.
To learn more about the Greenwood massacre, see the Greenwood Cultural Center. If you visit Tulsa, be sure to visit the Greenwood Cultural Center, and walk through the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which opened in 2014 and has several memorials dedicated to those who were murdered in the riot.
For more resources on expanding your curriculum, check out the following:
- Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States
- James W. Loewen's book, Lies My Teacher Told Me
- Websites with social-justice teaching materials and curriculum: Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance