The Tulsa Race Riot Essay

The Tulsa race riot is the largest in American history and one of the least well known. Tulsa, Oklahoma had what many called the most financially vibrant black district in the United States.  It was known as “Black Wall Street” until a race riot burned it down in 1921. The spark that set off the riot?

A black teenager had been accused of sexually attacking a white teenage girl. Charges were later dropped against the young man, but not until after the “Black Wall Street” and the surrounding community had been burned down in what was then the largest race riot in American history. This incident became the basis for a week of high school history lessons as I taught my students how to research like a historian.

Sadly, many US history textbooks do not discuss this incident at all.  Even today historians disagree on what exactly happened. Were planes actually used to drop incendiary bombs on black businesses and homes as some eyewitnesses claimed?  Reports on the number killed range from 30 to 3,000 with the Red Cross putting the number at 300. All reports indicate thousands of black citizens were held in detention, but are the numbers closer to 5,000 or 10,000? 

One area where people do agree is that no white citizens were ever convicted for any of the deaths or destruction. 

The final assignment of this unit was a paper for the students to write. They basically had to write a textbook entry describing what happened. The rubric was based on “historical accuracy”. What was the death toll? There are numerous, differing accounts, students  had to decide which account was most credible and describe why while citing sources. What really happened that caused the spark?

I also created a “bias” guide for the students to use while researching their sources. What was the “slant” of the source? How credible were they? Did their story change over time?  Some bias were easy to spot (KKK member). Others were more difficult. 

Students are used to textbooks and teachers telling them what happened in the past. One student shared a little anxiety when he said “I have found two credible sources. Which one do I believe?”  This unit turned the tables. Students had to become the historian and tell me what happened based on their research. 

More importantly, recent events in the news have shown us that “Which one do I believe?” is an increasingly important question for American citizens to be asking. Teaching students to sniff out bias come to their own understanding based on facts is one of the most important skills we will ever teach.

High School
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