From Juneteenth to the Tulsa massacre: What isn't taught in classrooms has a profound impact

Educators said the history of systemic racism in this country and the contributions of Black people have been erased.
Tulsa Race Massacre
Houses burn in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1921 during the "Black Wall Street" massacre.Oklahoma Historical Society / Getty Images

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By Daniella Silva

A Connecticut fourth grade social studies textbook falsely claimed that slaves were treated just like “family.” A Texas geography textbook referred to enslaved Africans as “workers.” In Alabama, up until the 1970s, fourth graders learned in a textbook called "Know Alabama" that slave life on a plantation was "one of the happiest ways of life."

In contrast, historians and educators point out, many children in the U.S. education system are not taught about major Black historical events, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre or Juneteenth, the June 19 commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.

As the country grapples with a racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd in police custody, educators said that what has and what has not been taught in school have been part of erasing the history of systemic racism in America and the contributions of Black people and other minority groups.

“There’s a long legacy of institutional racism that is barely covered in the mainstream corporate curriculum,” said Jesse Hagopian, an ethnic studies teacher in Seattle and co-editor of the book “Teaching for Black Lives.”

“It’s really astounding how little the contributions of Black people are included in much of the mainstream curriculum and how much of that institutional racism is disguised,” he said.

Historians said curriculums are about identity and learning about ourselves and others.

“The curriculum was never designed to be anything other than white supremacist," Julian Hayter, a historian and an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said, "and it has been very difficult to convince people that other versions of history are not only worth telling. They’re absolutely essential for us as a country to move closer to something that might reflect reconciliation but even more importantly, the truth."

LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri, said the history curriculums in schools are meant to tell a story and, in the U.S., that has been one of a “progressive history of the country.”

“Really the overarching theme is, ‘Yes, we made mistakes, but we overcame because we are the United States of America,'” said King, who is also the founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the university.

“What that has done is it has erased tons of history that would combat that progressive narrative,” he said.

King said the experiences and oppression of Black people, Latino people, indigenous people, Asian people and other minority groups in the U.S. are largely ignored or sidelined to fit those narratives.

“So, of course you’re not going to have crucial information such as what happened in Tulsa, you’re not going to have information such as the bombing of a Philadelphia black neighborhood,” he said.

In 1921 in Oklahoma, whites looted and destroyed Tulsa's Greenwood District, known for its affluent Black community. Historians believe that as many as 300 Black people were killed.

In May 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb onto the compound of MOVE, a black liberation group, killing six members, five of their children and destroying 65 homes in the neighborhood.

Another often-omitted period of U.S. Black history is the Red Summer, a period of time through 1919 when white mobs incited a wave of anti-Black violence in dozens of cities.

As for the protests against racial inequality and police brutality after the killing of Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, King emphasized that these movements were not new.

“Black people have been saying this for the past 400 years, this is not a new movement,” he said. “Each generation has had their point in time where they’re trying to say through protest, through rebellion, ‘listen to us, listen to us,’” he said.

Part of the problem is that society has never listened to that history, he said.

“In many ways we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom,” he said.

“In many ways we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom."

The current moment has also put increased national attention on Juneteenth, which is Friday this year.

President Donald Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he moved a rally in Tulsa set for Friday to Saturday “out of respect” for two African American friends and supporters.

“I did something good. I made it famous. I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, it’s an important time. But nobody had heard of it,” he said, although his office has previously put out statements marking the occasion.

Historians note that Juneteenth has been celebrated in Black communities across the country for 155 years.

And even after the Confederate surrender and Juneteenth, slavery still existed in parts of the country until Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in Dec. 1865, formally abolishing slavery in the United States.

Hayter said that the history of Black people and other minority communities has already “been completely whitewashed and erased" when it is taught in American classrooms.

He pointed to the argument made by some that removing Confederate statues and iconography is tantamount to erasing history.

“So when people say you can’t erase history, it's like, what are you talking about?” he said. “If you crack open a textbook from the mid-20th century, there are no minorities in those textbooks.”

“The contributions they made to the American democratic experience are completely ignored,” he said.

Hayter said those histories have been seen as “a footnote to a larger narrative and not an important and integral portion of the history more largely.”

“As long as we continue to treat these as addendums to a larger American narrative, we’re failing these kids in large part because we’ve reduced these histories to second-class status,” he said.

Hagopian said “Teaching for Black Lives” seeks to uncover some of these really important periods of Black history and give educators access points to teach students about them, including a whole lesson on the Tulsa Race Massacre.

He said another historical period that was glaringly absent from the mainstream curriculum was Reconstruction, the era following the Civil War that sought to address the inequalities of slavery.

“Reconstruction is one of the most fascinating and revolutionary periods in American history,” he said.

Hagopian said it was a remarkable period of time, although short, when the country undertook a conscious effort to tear down institutionally racist structures.

“Black people built the public school system across the South, and there were integrated schools in the 1860s. They were more integrated than today, just incredible examples of Black empowerment,” he said, adding that there were more Black elected officials than at anytime until recently.

“It’s such an important era to examine," Hagopian said. "If we’re going to escape the intense level of racism that we have today, we’re going to need to look at what it looked like when there was a movement toward institutional anti-racism."

It is also important, Hagopian said, to teach students that the civil rights movement went beyond a few famous figures commonly featured in history books or during Black History Month, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“I think one of the most important things for students to learn about is the way young people have helped shape American history in profound ways and to help understand the contributions especially of Black youth to this nation,” he said.

“They’re so often erased, but when students learn that it was young people who were the leaders of the civil rights movement, they can then see themselves as potential actors to transform the world today."