5 THINGS I LEARNED IN DR. KARLOS K. HILL’S, “THE 1921 TULSA RACE MASSACRE: LESSONS AND LEGACIES”


Dr. Karlos K. Hill is Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and Expert on Racism & Race Relations. He taught a course I attended at Phillips Theological Seminary.

When Dr. Karlos K. Hill, professor of history at Oklahoma University and adjunct professor at Phillips Theological Seminary, teaches about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the most important starting places is with where students are. A first question Dr. Hill asks students is, “What is the relationship you have with this history?” The question is as unusual and unfamiliar for many students but a game changer for how students engage historical narratives as dynamic and ever possible for new discovery.

I had been studying the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre three years before entering Dr. Hill’s course on the massacre and rebuilding of Greenwood. Even so, I realized I have something new to learn everyday about history, specifically history of Tulsa. I am only now attempting to better understand my relationship to this history. This concept is called “positionality.” What you will see in this article is a reflection on five things I learned in Dr. Hill’s class, related to how I’m discerning my own positionality related to the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I encourage you to consider your own positionality by starting with the question, “What is my relationship to the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.”

LEARNING NEW THINGS ABOUT HISTORY

1. I was inspired by Dr. Karlos K. Hill’s example, that there is always something new everyday I can learn about history. Specifically, there is something new everyday I can learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. This is very important when living in proximity where history has had intense and destructive generational impact. I’ve observed people learning “something new”—the authentic story of the massacre—for the first time. Some need time to reflect. Others vigorously resist “revisionist” narratives and say, “That was a long time ago. I wasn’t there.” I’ve also observed a handful who are ready to learn more, to do something about history, and perhaps make historic change.

CENTERING VICTIMS, SURVIVORS, AND DESCENDANTS

2. From Dr. Karlos K. Hill’s class specifically, I have learned to center the narratives and experiences of victims, survivors, and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Re-centering changed my presentation of the massacre dramatically. In February 2020, I titled a presentation, “Tulsa 1921 and White Christians.” (https://youtu.be/e9uoZ0LLJv8) In retrospect, I’m not pleased with my title. My purpose that day, however, was to help mostly White Christians look in the mirror, to see white supremacy’s impact, and to gather data from the congregation. An April 2021 presentation was titled, “Salvation has come to this house,” (https://youtu.be/sNum8juHsh8?t=2481). I focused on three storylines: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), race massacre survivors Kenny I. Booker and Genevieve Elizabeth Tillman, and 1256 Movement. More than any previous presentation, I centered the narratives and experiences of victims, survivors, and descendants.

GIVE WHITE SUPREMACY A BLACK EYE

3. I have learned to de-center my own research and tell the story in narratives that I have found more impactful, effective, and winsome than by speaking about my research, technical definitions, and centering on whiteness. The past three years, I’ve been researching and writing my Doctor of Ministry research project on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and how white supremacy impacts communities. Through local, historical, community research, I have been receiving a “Black Eye,” learning how white supremacy is mantled in White people like me. By first learning how white supremacy is mantled in White Americans like me, I am learning how to dismantle the White eyes that demonize. Of course, in my project, I unpack “demonizing eyes of whiteness.”[1]

I have been learning how Whiteness (White theology, supremacy, and violence) are mantled in me in order to dismantle Whiteness in me and learn to be a better White person. The way of seeing through a Black eye is perhaps the more positive part of the metaphor. I also receive the proverbial punch that gives a Black eye when I engage other White people with how White theology, supremacy, and violence are mantled in us. Nothing I do as a race interrupter and traitor to White people will ever come close to how I’ve learned Black people have been and are continually punched. My eyes are more open to daily inequities. As I write on April 16, 2021, a story in this morning’s Tulsa World about Tulsa Police Officer Latoya Dythe, 26, has pleaded guilty for a gun charge and could face years in prison. The most corrupt and lucrative arms culture and government in the world, and we throw the book at a Black female police officer who was buying a gun for her boyfriend?

Very specifically from this experience in 880.13, I plan to write an Epilogue with conclusions from my research project. With that, I plan to write recommendations for further learning and directions of research. My research intends to name the negative community impact white supremacy has on majority White communities, diverse communities, and mostly Black communities.

CENTERING RESILIENCY OF GREENWOOD AND BLACK TULSANS

4. I have learned from Dr. Hill, guest presenters, and discussion to center the resiliency of Greenwood residents who rebuilt and redeveloped in the decades after the massacre. I’m trying not to only focus on discrimination and injustice but also on resiliency, power, and joy of Black experiences of life. Without referencing, defaulting, and comparing White experiences, I’m trying to be an advocate, co-conspirator, and ally rather than calling myself one.

What I’m learning is generative and has helped me form new and lasting friendships outside my White community.[2] It is not the responsibility of any of these loved ones to teach me about racism, Black experiences, or how to respond. I am, however, in friendships with BIPOC people where we experience trust, joy, denial, sadness, anger, compassion, love, truth, and challenge together. In stark contrast to the destructive, grievous experiences of the race massacre, friendships between White and BIPOC people may build new realities and help make space for healing and reparations.

ENGAGING REPARATION CONVERSATIONS FEARLESSLY

5. I have learned to engage with reparations in tangible, thoughtful, meaningful ways and be flexible in adjusting the mission of 1256 Movement. The 1256 Movement exists in order to pay reparations of $10,000 for each of 1,256 Black families who build a new or rehab home in the next ten years. How might this attempt impact the legal, political, social, rhetorical challenges to the City of Tulsa by prophetic activists such as Rev. Robert Turner and Damario Solomon-Simmons? Rev. Turner’s answer surprised me in one way and was what I expected in another way. What I expected is that, yes, there is some negative impact private reparations may have on the efforts to call the city to account. Reparations on a mass scale done through non-profit organizations, churches, private citizens may inadvertently let the city off the hook, exonerate those in city government who see or participate in private efforts of reparations as if the city did something but did not really do anything legally, substantially, and materially for reparations. I was not all that surprised that Rev. Turner is a “reparations purist” but what surprised me is that he said he is starting to believe private reparations can be possible and can do something to shame, inspire, spark, prime the pump for more formal government scale reparations for the entity that is responsible.

What Rev. Turner said specifically to me is that “you are not the city,” and “you were not around in 1921” (something many White people say to me in resisting any discussion about reparations for the massacre) but “the city was around in 1921” and the City of Tulsa is culpable, responsible, and complicit in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. That’s why it is so important for the narratives of White City of Tulsa officials who made policy and did not stop the massacre, police who deputized White men (and boys) to kill Black people and take Black prisoners, firemen who did not put out fires, national/state guard that protected White Tulsa, shot at Black Tulsans, and took Black prisoners, leaving Greenwood less guarded and vulnerable to attack, murder, looting, burning.

The city that refused in so many ways the rebuilding by prohibitive “fire codes,” turning a blind eye while lumber yards refused to sell lumber to Black Tulsans, and helping White-owned insurance companies deny insurance claims, ensuring that these companies get their designation of “riot” so this “riot clause” could form the basis of denying every single insurance claim filed on businesses, churches, and homes in Greenwood.

Finally related to reparations, something Wesley Gamble—pastor, builder, and friend—said to me is compelling. He said “trickle down economics” of reparations may not work for most Black Tulsans. What we do with 1256 Movement is going to impact the personal lives of Black Tulsans perhaps in ways city-wide or nation-wide reparations may not reach.

I am learning that there is no repentance without reparations. Even some other White people I have spoken to in Oklahoma seem to be able to start getting their minds around local reparations, often stating that they don’t get the “non-starter” of reparations for slavery. Starting with local community reparations and being able to dialogue and act in meaningful ways can lead to a more effective dialogue and action on a national scale. We have some global examples of South African and Rwandan truth commissions, and truth commissions with more White people listening and involved, hearing the truths of the narratives of victims, survivors, and descendants is important in the years to come.

These are five ways my understanding of the race massacre has evolved since the beginning of the course and how I am I applying this new understanding. Particularly in this centennial year, an imperative for me from this learning is to center narratives of victims, survivors, and descendants of the massacre and participate in the rebuilding of Greenwood, helping myself and others move from inaction and resistance to action and reparations.


[1] White supremacist taxonomies, upheld by modernist philosophy and theology privileged whiteness and demonized blackness as evil. For more on this, see James W. Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (Springer, 2004), 59.

[2] I’m grateful to professors, authors such as Womanist theologians, pastors, mentors, and friends who love punch and give me a black eye to see a better world: Rev. Sharyn Cosby, Ricco Wright, DeAnn Gibson, Sherry Gamble Smith, Jean Neal, Nyasha Peters, Chuck and Amber Oputa, Wesley Gamble, Larry Tease, Freeman Culver, Carl Lolar, Clarence and Ethelene Davis, Darlene Daughrity, Dr. Yuki Schwartz, Greg Robinson, Vanessa Hall-Harper, Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, Dr. Karlos K. Hill, Melvin Gilliam, Carlos Foster, Rev. Jerry Taylor, Rev. Andrea Chambers, Dr. Regina Shands Stoltzfus, James Baldwin, M. Shawn Copeland, Kelly Brown Douglas, Cornel West, James H. Cone, Angela Y. Davis, Ibram X. Kendi, Ta Nesi Coates, Tracy West, Robin DiAngelo, Bryan Stevenson, Carol Anderson, Jim Perkinson, Jennifer Harvey, and Isabell Wilkerson.