Tom Hanks urges US educators to teach students about Tulsa race massacre

Actor writes in New York Times that he ‘never read a page of any school history book’ about 1921 massacre

In an essay lamenting the long neglect of the Tulsa race massacre, the Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks said “white educators and school administrators” in the US had “omitted the volatile subject for the sake of the status quo, placing white feelings over Black experience – literally Black lives in this case”.

Amid a national reckoning over systemic racism, this week saw a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the rampage by a white mob in the city in Oklahoma in 1921. As many as 300 people were killed and Greenwood, a neighbourhood so prosperous it was nicknamed “Black Wall Street”, was burned.

Joe Biden visited Tulsa on Tuesday, delivering an emotional speech to a crowd including three survivors.

The massacre, the president said, had long been “seen in the mirror dimly”.

“But no longer. Now your story will be known in full view.”

Biden presides over a bitterly divided country in which protests against racism and police brutality and an attendant push for reform have stoked fury on the political right.

Hanks, 65, is the widely loved star of such historical epics as Saving Private Ryan and News of the World, and a producer of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. He may find a wider audience for his plea.

Calling himself “a lay historian who talks way too much at dinner parties”, Hanks wrote for the New York Times that four years of his own education “included studying American history”, since when he had “read history for pleasure and watched documentary films”.

“Many of those works and those textbooks were about white people and white history,” he wrote. “The few Black figures – Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr – were those who accomplished much in spite of slavery, segregation and institutional injustices in American society.

“But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Hanks said he and his industry were part of the problem, having helped “shape what is history and what is forgotten”. He said he learned of the Tulsa race massacre from a Times piece published in July last year, as protests inspired by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer flowed through a fraught and violent summer.

In a historical education touching such keystones as the Boston Tea Party, the rise of Teddy Roosevelt and the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, Hanks wrote: “Tulsa was never more than a city on the prairie.

“The Oklahoma Land Rush got some paragraphs … but the 1921 burning out of the Black population that lived there was never mentioned. Nor … was anti-Black violence on large and small scales, especially between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement.

“… Many students like me were told that the lynching of Black Americans was tragic but not that these public murders were commonplace and often lauded by local papers and law enforcement.”

Hanks wrote of noticing racial tensions as a child in Oakland, California, while taking lessons on “the Emancipation Proclamation, the Ku Klux Klan, Rosa Parks’s daring heroism and her common decency and even the death of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre”.

“Parts of American cities had been aflame at points since the Watts riots in 1965,” he wrote, “and Oakland was the home of the Black Panthers and the Vietnam war-era draftee induction center, so history was playing out before our very eyes. The issues were myriad, the solutions theoretical, the lessons few, the headlines continuous.

“The truth about Tulsa, and the repeated violence by some white Americans against Black Americans, was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young white ears. So, our predominantly white schools didn’t teach it, our mass appeal works of historical fiction didn’t enlighten us, and my chosen industry didn’t take on the subject in films and shows until recently.

“It seems white educators and school administrators (if they even knew of the Tulsa massacre, for some surely did not) omitted the volatile subject for the sake of the status quo, placing white feelings over Black experience – literally Black lives in this case.

“Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered.”

Hanks made oblique mention of current controversies in academia and politics over the teaching of history.

In one prominent example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is under pressure over its denial of tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer prize for the Times’ 1619 Project, about the first arrival on American soil of enslaved people from Africa, in Virginia that year.

“When people hear about systemic racism in America,” Hanks wrote, “just the use of those words draws the ire of those white people who insist that since 4 July 1776 we have all been free, we were all created equally, that any American can become president and catch a cab in Midtown Manhattan no matter the colour of our skin, that, yes, American progress toward justice for all can be slow but remains relentless.

“Tell that to the century-old survivors of Tulsa and their offspring. And teach the truth to the white descendants of those in the mob that destroyed Black Wall Street.”

Hanks commended some entertainment industry products, including Watchmen, a HBO series which dealt with Tulsa.

“Should our schools now teach the truth about Tulsa?” he asked. “Yes, and they should also stop the battle to whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students.”


Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

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