Premeditation and Resilience: Tulsa, Red Summer and the Great Migration

Episode 7, Season 4

Naming the 1921 Tulsa massacre a “race riot” is inaccurate. Historian David Krugler urges listeners to call this and other violent attacks what they were: premeditated attempts at ethnic cleansing. Decades before, African Americans moved North in record numbers during the Great Migration. Krugler delves into connections between diaspora and violence and highlights the strength of Black communities in resistance to white supremacist terrorism.

 

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Transcript

Bethany Jay: I spend a lot of time thinking about some of the most painful parts of our nation's history. Slavery, the slave trade, segregation and racial violence pervade so much of my work. This stuff is hard, so I'm not apologetic about keeping my TV viewing light. I remain unashamed that I watch every Hallmark Christmas movie, even though I can tell from the first scene exactly how it will play out. And I'll much sooner watch Saturday Night Live than an episode of Ozark. But a lot of my family members like their entertainment to be a little bit darker, a little more real, than I do. Those family members watch the HBO show Watchmen that premiered in 2019.

Bethany Jay: The show takes place in a modern-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, but in an alternate timeline of American history. In this Tulsa, our protagonist is serving as both a police officer and a vigilante superhero named Sister Night. Spoiler alert: her grandfather is a survivor of the Tulsa Massacre. I'm not gonna get into what seems to be an alien-squid attack or a subplot set on one of Jupiter's moons. Let's just say that even though it's set in a very different America, the characters are dealing with political and racial issues which are grounded in the very real American universe.

Bethany Jay: In 1921, white Oklahomans, aided by police officers and the National Guard, razed 35 square blocks of Black Tulsa and the thriving Greenwood community known as Black Wall Street. The reason? The rumored assault of a white girl by a Black man. The allegation was proved false and the Black community resisted, but before the massacre was over, between 70 and 300 people were dead and 8,000 were homeless.

Bethany Jay: The first episode of Watchmen begins with a reenactment of the Tulsa Massacre. We see chaos on the streets. There's smoke everywhere, and people are ducking gunfire as planes are buzzing overhead and dropping incendiary bombs on buildings.

Bethany Jay: It was in this opening scene that my family learned about the Tulsa Massacre. Sure, they had heard Tulsa referenced—probably by me—but Watchmen made them really get Tulsa. They weren't alone. The show's star, Regina King tweeted, "Seeing so many tweets that Watchmen was the first time they had heard about Black Wall Street, and had no idea that our opening depicted the Tulsa Massacre—which had not been taught in US history classes—made me want to post this post." Then she linked to a Washington Post article about the search for mass graves from the 1921 massacre.

Bethany Jay: Two years later, Joe Biden became the first sitting president to commemorate the 1921 massacre. He delivered an emotional speech in the city on the event's 100th anniversary.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, it doesn't mean that it did not take place. Hell was unleashed. Literal hell was unleashed. We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn't impact us today, because it does still impact us today. We can't just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. Because in silence wounds deepen.]

Bethany Jay: When President Biden's address forced national attention on this event's centennial, it seemed a whole other segment of the American population heard about the Tulsa massacre for the very first time. And again, numerous articles were written about the many Americans who had never learned of the event.

Bethany Jay: Like so much of American history that doesn't fit the comfortable and celebratory narrative—what I call the "Things started out great, and have been getting better ever since" narrative—Tulsa had been buried. And it's not just Tulsa. East St. Louis, Chester, Pennsylvania, Houston, Philadelphia, Charleston, Longview, Washington, DC, Chicago, Knoxville and Elaine, Arkansas, all are instances of anti-Black collective violence that occurred between 1917 and 1919.

Bethany Jay: Joe Biden's speech, shows like Watchmen, and HBO's Lovecraft Country, which also depicts the massacre, maybe these are signs that America is ready to begin confronting the racial violence that pervades its past. But there are entrenched interests in politics and government that are determined to make this difficult. Just three weeks before Biden's visit to Tulsa, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, signed a law prohibiting certain ideas about race and racism from being taught in the state's schools.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kevin Stitt: Now more than ever, we need policies that bring us together, not rip us apart. And as governor, I firmly believe that not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex. That is what this bill upholds for public education.]

Bethany Jay: In all, 23 states from Rhode Island to Texas have either enacted similar bans or have legislation to do so under consideration. As educators, we don't have to wait for the next sci-fi television show to teach our students about this history. We can use our classrooms to actually help them make sense of this hard history—and the nation it helped to create. Because it's not just African-American history, it's definitely not revisionist history, this is US history, in all of its complexity.

Bethany Jay: I'm Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.

Bethany Jay: Starting In the 1910s, African Americans began leaving the South in record numbers during the Great Migration. African-American businesses were thriving in many places, and the Black middle class was growing, as thousands of Black veterans who had been making the world safe for democracy were returning to a nation that resented them. What followed was a series of coordinated anti-Black acts of collective violence around the country.

Bethany JayDavid Krugler is the author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence. In this episode, he talks with my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries about the massacres that occurred during Red Summer and in Tulsa, about the lasting damage that they caused and how Black communities fought back, resisting these premeditated acts of white supremacist terrorism.

Bethany Jay: I'm so glad you can join us. Let's get started.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: David, I am really excited to welcome you to the podcast and say thank you so much in advance for joining us today.

David Krugler: Thank you, Hasan. It's a pleasure to be here, and I'm looking forward to our conversation.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In a number of the episodes that we've had so far, we've spent a lot of time focusing on African-American experiences in the South. But there comes a time in the African-American experience where Black folk begin to move out of the South. And this movement we call the Great Migration. Could you share a little bit about what the Great Migration was, and what led African Americans to migrate out of the South?

David Krugler: Yes, so one of the greatest social changes taking place during the 1910s is that approximately 500,000 African Americans leave the South for Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh. After the war years, approximately 1914 into 1918, we have an even greater migration. And so in the decades that follow: the '20s, the '30s and the '40s during World War II, millions more leave the South. And there are many reasons for that departure and relocation. During 1914, there are cotton failures, there's flooding. There is the structure of debt peonage that holds Black sharecroppers in bondage to the land. If they try to leave, they'll be arrested. They're cheated out of their earnings so that they're permanently in debt. So that's a big reason to leave if they can make the escape.

David Krugler: Because of the shut off of European migration to the United States because of World War I, Northern factories need labor. They desperately need labor. They send labor agents to the South to recruit African Americans and offer them incentives to come north.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most African Americans actually remain in the South. Why didn't more people go?

David Krugler: There are obstacles to it. Southern officials try to block this. Some states require these labor agents to pay $500 for a license to do this. The point was to make it prohibitively expensive. And the reason for blocking African Americans from leaving is pretty clear: they had a captive labor market. They had an exploited population which wanted to leave.

David Krugler: For those who try to leave, violence awaits. Sheriffs can track them down and arrest them. They could be subjected to mob violence. There's also the very real fear of retaliation against family members. So if one person leaves, they worry about elderly relatives who may not want to make the move or may not physically be able to. Will there be retaliation against them? When you've got a system that has all the resources of the state, not just law enforcement and the courts, but also all elected officials, appointed positions, the running of municipal and state governments and county governments, and then you've got an economic system that's rigged against African Americans, that's, you know, a pretty big obstacle to get over. And it takes a great deal of courage to leave, but it also takes courage to stay. We shouldn't think that those who chose to remain behind were cowardly in some way. There's a complex mix of reasons to stay or go.

David Krugler: And I think also when we look at the Great Migration as a decades-long process, with millions more leaving the South for the North in the '20s, '30s and '40s, then we see that it does snowball. And so more and more people do make that choice to leave. We can think of that 500,000 as a vanguard.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What are some of the things that teachers can do to teach the Great Migration, both the reasons why African Americans left, and also some of the issues that African Americans encountered when they arrived in the cities of the North and the West?

David Krugler: I think one of the best tools for teachers are a series of letters to the Chicago Defender that the Library of Congress has—letters written by Southern African Americans who want to move north. The Chicago Defender is a weekly Black newspaper, obviously published in Chicago, but it has national distribution. And its publisher, Robert Abbott, was a big fan of migration. And a lot of the content of the Chicago Defender played up the opportunities in Chicago, encouraged Southern Blacks to move. And this got the attention of African Americans of all ages across the South. And so you read these letters, and some are from teenagers asking for help. And they always say, "Look, I'll pay you back. But the conditions are so bad here. We live in fear. People are being lynched, we're cheated out of our wages. We have families to support. We'd like to come North." And these letters—and you can get the original scans so you can see how the people wrote them out in pencil on paper. It's pretty moving and a great teaching resource.

David Krugler: And also, one of the great cultural depictions, artistic depictions of the Great Migration can be found in a series of panels that the Black painter Jacob Lawrence produced. He's got a very distinctive style. These are figurative paintings, but there is a certain level of abstraction with a lot of angular presentation. But it's really striking. I mean, his color palette is amazing. And so in one painting, we see African Americans flowing into three doors to go to different locations of the Great Migration. And he captures so well the press of bodies, you know, the urgency that people felt to get out. And from there, the panels go on to show trains at night, and the arrival in the city, finding work, finding inferior housing stock, experiencing discrimination, resentment in the South, efforts to block labor agents from even coming south to recruit these migrants. One of the panels shows hands gripping a prison bar, and we only see those hands in this small prison window. It's a labor agent who's been jailed for recruiting. And so that gives us this really great artistic presentation of the Great Migration. And all the panels do that.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what were some issues that African Americans would have encountered when they arrived from Alabama and settled in Cleveland, or leaving Mississippi and settled in Chicago?

David Krugler: The North was often seen as a promised land, but it had lots and lots of problems itself. There were a lot of issues awaiting these migrants. Let's start with two. One: residential segregation. So Chicago, one of the prime destinations for Southern migrants, part of Chicago becomes known as "North Mississippi" during the interwar years, they find a small and thriving African-American community, but one bounded by strictly, rigidly enforced residential lines of segregation. This is maintained by a variety of practices. So the migrants pour into this existing community, which is known as the Black Belt. And by 1919, it's bursting at the seams, and the housing stock is not great, either. So that's the first big problem. The second, there's a lot of hostility within Chicago's workplaces, and this is true in Pittsburgh and Detroit. White-only unions shut out Black laborers, and this breeds resentment on both sides. There's already this malicious stereotype that African Americans are strikebreakers, and in some cases, employers did bring in Black workers, many times unwitting Black workers. They don't know they're being used to cross picket lines. And that adds to the resentment. We're going to see both of these problems, the existence of this discrimination cause Chicago to boil over in the summer of 1919.

Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources—as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Now let's return to Hasan's conversation with David Krugler.

David Krugler: The summer of 1919 was famously called by James Weldon Johnson, the Red Summer, referring to regular outbreaks of anti-Black collective violence that took the lives of hundreds of African Americans. In just one site of the violence, Phillips County, Arkansas, more than 230 African Americans were killed by white mobs and white soldiers. There were nine other sites of such violence in 1919. And it preceded the summer, and it continued after the summer. It's one of the worst periods of mob violence directed at African Americans in US history. Indeed, one of the worst stretches of any mob violence in the nation's history.

David Krugler: So during the war years, many African Americans with the means to do so rent or purchase homes in dominant white neighborhoods. In Chicago, for example, when African Americans move into those homes, they are the target of terrorism. There were, in the first six or so months of 1919, more than a dozen bombings of Black-occupied homes on white streets, or bombings against realtors who brokered either the rental or the sale of the home. So we have targeted violence to drive African Americans out. And this is building up.

David Krugler: Then in late July, 1919, there's an altercation on the shore of Lake Michigan. It's a hot day, it's 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And a young Black man with three friends, a teenager named Eugene Williams, was on a raft. They were floating by a white area, and a young white man started throwing rocks at them, and one of them hit Eugene Williams and he drowned. This created an incident on the beach. African Americans were angry when a Black witness pointed out the rock thrower, a white police officer arrested the witness rather than the perpetrator. So this creates a tension, a conflict on the beach. What happens that night is that organized gangs in the white neighborhoods, among them one known as Reagan's Colts—and they took their name from a prominent local Democratic official, Frank Reagan, who sponsored the club. They were called athletic clubs, but they often blurred that line between that sort of social activity and extra-legal action. And they began targeting Black-occupied homes.

David Krugler: And if you look at photographs of Chicago after this violence, it's remarkable to see streets where all the homes are untouched except for one, and that was a Black-occupied home. There are photos of young white children and teenagers filling the looted home, leaning out of broken windows, filling the yard, standing on the sills of broken windows, cheering at the photographer. It's a staged photo. They're celebrating the expulsion of these unwanted neighbors. And that's one of the purposes of the white violence against African Americans in Chicago, and we see it in other cities as well: to drive out these newcomers. It's really a form of ethnic cleansing.

David Krugler: This is why we need to be careful not to call them "riots." It's very problematic because when we think of a riot, it looks like random or spontaneous mayhem, and it's easy to conclude that anyone participating is equally to blame. But these weren't riots, they were organized attacks against African Americans for the purposes of driving them out of these homes. There were organized attacks in Chicago against Black packinghouse workers. So the packinghouses, the Back of the Yards, was in a white neighborhood, and to get home, Black workers had to take streetcars across this territory that's very hostile to them. And white gangs pull Black workers off or chase them off the cars and hunt them down.

David Krugler: And there's a Japanese immigrant named Jun Fujita, who was a photographer for one of Chicago's daily newspapers. And he took on-the-scene photographs of these murders taking place. They're very graphic. They're hard to look at, but they are very important resources because they document beyond a doubt just how meditated this was. It wasn't random.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You use the phrase, "Anyone who participated is equally to blame" when we call these massacres, these intentional killings "riots." So the language that we use, we have to be very mindful of. And I'm glad that you reminded us of that. How did African Americans respond in the moment to this orgy of violence that isn't just limited to Chicago?

David Krugler: They responded in three ways. First, through armed self-defense. So they did the job that the police were unable or even refused to do. And one of the decisions made by Chicago's superintendent of police was to cordon off the Black Belts. And Garrity, the head of Chicago's police, said, "Well, this will protect African Americans, will keep hostile whites from coming in." But there were already gangs active within that cordon, so it did nothing to protect them. So African Americans had to do it themselves. And veterans, Black Chicago veterans of the war, they were determined not to be mown down during outbreaks of white mob violence. So they take up arms to defend themselves and their families and their community against the violence.

David Krugler: What's interesting about Chicago is that it had an all-Black National Guard unit. So this unit was comprised of men who had served together for a while, who knew each other, they're friends and neighbors in many instances. And it was a unit led by Black officers. So they have this cohesion that they can call upon. And so they put on their uniforms. Some of them even were wearing the Croix de Guerre, the medal of honor that the French government had given them for their service because they had been assigned to French units. And they're on the streets stopping gangs from attacking African Americans.

David Krugler: Later, after Chicago's violence, a coroner's grand jury praises them for helping to keep the calm. But if you read Chicago's newspapers, they are portrayed as villains. As the violence unfolds, the newspapers are providing daily coverage, and there are multiple editions being published each day. We should remind ourselves that at this moment in time, in 1919, this is the major source for timely news. There's no radio news, certainly no television news. And so the newspapers in Chicago—and this is a pattern seen in other cities as well—they immediately begin blaming African Americans for the violence, though as we've established, African Americans are the targets of violence, and they are often responding with armed self-defense. So when Black veterans in Chicago took action to protect Black families and the Black community from these roving violent gangs, the white press presented that as the problem. And in one article, the Chicago Tribune provided a script for a new version of The Birth of a Nation. They described these Black veterans as "marauders" who were storming down the streets, firing indiscriminately at women and children, sending terrified whites scurrying. And then they describe a brave white police officer who stands up to these marauders and is shot, but the bullet bounces off his shields.

David Krugler: So I mean, think about, you know, this fantastical symbolism that is being put forward here. And although this is an extreme example, there are similar stories in Chicago's other papers, similar stories in Washington, DC's papers and the other cities that are sites of anti-Black collective violence. And so this idea we have of riots where everyone's to blame, we inherit that from the very biased, slanted media coverage of the violence itself, which blamed African Americans for it when, in fact, they were defending themselves.

David Krugler: And they also resisted in two other ways: they tried to get out the truth about the riots, and the NAACP is a leader in this, but so too the Black press such as the Chicago Defender. And the third way is to go to court and defend African Americans who were charged with murder if they killed a white in self-defense or other very serious felonies. And in Chicago, they win several victories. They get acquittals or dismissal of charges.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm thinking about how teachers can teach about Red Summer, can teach about this violence, can teach about the African-American response to this violence in ways that are both accurate and effective, and yet do not traumatize students because this subject matter is so intense. Do you have some recommendations?

David Krugler: Yes, I think one way to approach this is to look at editorials published in Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, also The Messenger, Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph's publication, or in The Crisis, the publication of the NAACP. In particular, Walter White helped write reports describing what happened in Chicago, describing resistance to it. And to look at how there's an appraisal of what happened and a celebration of the fighting back. And so that provides a counter to the fallacious presentation to be found elsewhere in the media in 1919, but does so in ways that don't glorify or linger on the violence.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Would you suggest using cultural productions as well? What comes immediately to mind to me in 1919 and sort of the Black response is Claude McKay's powerful poem "If We Must Die."

David Krugler: Yes, absolutely. And using poetry is a good way to do it, and that poem in particular with its opening line, "If we must die, let it not be like hogs." And, you know, it talks about the violence and being outnumbered, but celebrates this willingness, this determination to stand up and make a sacrifice if necessary. It's a short, well-crafted piece of verse, and it works superbly in the classroom.

Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for "Professional Development." That's "PodcastPD," all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: violence. All lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is 1919 an anomaly? Is it a blip on the radar?

David Krugler: It's not an anomaly. It is a culmination of years and years, even decades of regular anti-Black collective violence, violence that's been going on since Reconstruction. In Reconstruction, we see recurring political terrorism that inflicts heavy, heavy casualties. The state of Louisiana alone during the years of Reconstruction, records more than 1,100 African Americans killed, often at political rallies by organized terrorist groups—the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations. That continues even after the formal end of Reconstruction.

David Krugler: We've got the infamous example in Wilmington in 1898, where you have mob actions that depose a lawfully-elected government in furtherance of white supremacy and white-only elections and governance. We have anti-Black collective violence in Springfield in 1906. So we can track these events in the post-Civil War era and see them occurring regularly, and then reaching this peak in 1918 going into early 1920, more than 10 major episodes of anti-Black collective violence. Not just Chicago, but Washington, DC, Omaha, Bogalusa, Louisiana, Gary, Indiana, Knoxville, Tennessee. We're talking about not just the South, but the North and the Midwest as well. That's in that end of the war period—the long 1919 we might call it—but it doesn't end there. The violence continues into 1920, and then there's another paroxysm of it in the summer of 1921 in Tulsa. And that race massacre, we just passed the 100th anniversary of that earlier this year.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what exactly happens in Tulsa in 1921?

David Krugler: I think the first thing that should be said is that Black people were doing well. Tulsa, though it's not thought of as a destination during the first Great Migration, by 1921, Greenwood—the Black area of Tulsa—was home to around 10,000 African Americans. And the business district of Greenwood, which later came to be called Black Wall Street, had a variety of prospering businesses. You know, we have the example of J.B. Stratford, who had been born in Kentucky as a slave at the start of the Civil War. He built and ran a hotel that was considered the nation's largest Black-owned hotel. This was a threat to white supremacy because it proved African Americans could succeed and prosper, so how could they be racially inferior to whites if they're doing so well? There's a lot of resentment at this prosperity.

David Krugler: One of the causes of Washington DC's racial violence in 1919 is white resentment at the Black middle class, which emerged as a result of opportunities working for that city's biggest employer: the national government. So a spark occurs Memorial Day weekend. Tulsa's two main papers, the white papers, published these really exaggerated, completely false accounts of an attack on a young white woman by a young Black man. And this becomes the spark for mob action in which thousands of whites attack Greenwood. And African Americans defend themselves, but they're outnumbered. And by the time the pogrom, by the time this massacre is over, a 35-square-block area was gone. It was rubble and smoking ashes. Thousands left homeless. The value of businesses lost in today's dollars is estimated anywhere from $20 million to $100 million or more dollars. I mean, it's just—it was wealth wiped out.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: David, when it was over, how do cities respond to these crises?

David Krugler: One notable response comes in Chicago where, unlike in most other cities where the violence occurred, there is a sustained effort to figure out how this happened, why it happened and what must be done to prevent it from ever occurring again. So the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, a biracial group, hires investigators, conducts months of study and research, and produces a lengthy report that pinpoints racial segregation, racial residential segregation, as a major problem, and proposes methods or ways to end that. But those recommendations go unheeded. Instead, there's a doubling down on the color line in Chicago, and the entrenchment of measures including realty practices and banking, lending and credit, which become even more entrenched when they're baked into federal housing policies emerging during the New Deal years. So the color line in Chicago becomes even harsher and more rigid. And then this produces the very same problems that led to 1919's violence, when Black families move into white neighborhoods or buy buildings in white communities, there's this tremendous and violent backlash.

David Krugler: And it's often overlooked that Martin Luther King comes north. He comes to Chicago and he marches in Cicero and he's attacked in Cicero. When he turns his attention and his efforts toward Jim Crow in the North, the backlash he receives is as harsh as anything he experienced in the South.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things that struck me during the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre was the number of people who were shocked that something like that had even occurred. What happens to the memory of these events after they occur?

David Krugler: The survivors and their descendants keep that history alive. They kept artifacts, they kept documents proving what had happened. They shared the stories with one another. They understood that there was some risk in doing so because Tulsa as a whole didn't want to acknowledge this, just wanted to move on, forget it had happened. At best, acknowledge it as an anomaly, something that would never happen again, that was a one off. But keeping those records, keeping those stories alive makes it possible for scholars decades later to revisit this. And one of the scholars of the massacre, a reporter and writer named Tim Madigan, you know, he's recently remarked like, "How could I not know this?" You know, he's like, "I'm an educated person. I'm a reporter in the region, and I've never heard of this." And there's a reason for that. This is a really difficult episode in American history to engage with. I think a lot of us would like to believe it wasn't part of a pattern, but it was. It was part of a pattern that had been building for decades, going back into the mid-19th century, as mentioned earlier. And so it becomes easier to bury it, to forget it, to hide it. Or it seems to be easier.

David Krugler: But that creates all sorts of problems for us as a population if we hide this from our young people. If we say, "Oh, we shouldn't teach about this because it makes people uncomfortable," or it's a way of, you know, blaming people today for something that happened in the past. I mean, we know that's not what we do in history.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the remarkable developments of this past year is the passage of legislation that ostensibly is designed to teach sort of a patriotic version of the past—this anti-Critical Race Theory legislation. And Oklahoma has passed one of these bills, which in effect would make it illegal to teach about Tulsa.

David Krugler: Which pits the new law against standing law in Oklahoma. Back in 1997, at the initiative of a Black legislator, Oklahoma created a commission to study the Tulsa race riot of 1921. And for the last 20 years—since 2002—state public schools must teach about the destruction of Greenwood. So how do you reconcile those two laws? You can't. And so it speaks to the inherent flaws in the new law. This is not unique to Oklahoma. Florida has put itself in such a trap, too. Florida has long required the teaching of the Holocaust in its public schools, and they do a very good job of doing that. Now there's a new law that is part of this initiative to suppress this history that bans Florida public school teachers from introducing material that could make students uncomfortable. Well, that too goes against the law requiring the teaching of the Holocaust.

David Krugler: You know, another thing that's so wrong about this is I think one of the purposes of these initiatives is to say, "Well, we need to focus on the founders and the creation of the Republic." Well, when you look at just a little bit of the writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you can see them wrestling with this dilemma that they are creating, that they are trying to forge freedom at the same time they are building and protecting slavery. And, you know, this unsettled them intellectually. They wrestled with this. And so these laws are in effect telling us we can't even look at how the founders of our nation wrestled with this. We're doing a disservice to their own actions. If the founders could wrestle with this, surely fifth graders can in the hands of capable teachers.

David Krugler: The 100th anniversary of the 1919 violence occurred two years ago, and it was interesting to note which communities and states engaged openly and fully with this past. I think Chicago did a really good job of engaging with it. They had programs through the public schools and The Newberry Library, a private research institution in Chicago, bringing in public school students to write poems about this, to produce art, to learn about it. They had exhibits. And so there's a positive example of what we can do. Rather than shirk from it, learn from it, engage with it and understand how that produces the world in which we live.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If there's one takeaway, one key point that you would want students to know about this period, this moment, the 19-teens into the early 1920s, about the Jim Crow North, what would it be?

David Krugler: I would want students to know about the premeditation and the dedication that goes into maintaining a very rigid color line. So in Chicago, for example, there is the use of terrorism, violence to enforce it. But that's the action of last resort. It's preceded by contracts, standard contracts that exclude the sale to people of color, the rental to people of color. It includes agreements between banks and realtors not to provide loans or credit to African Americans to buy in these neighborhoods. Think about what that then perpetuates. This would be also important for the students to learn: that produces schools of one race or the other, all-white schools or all-Black schools. That is done without a state law in Illinois requiring segregated schools. In Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, you see something similar happen. There's no state law requiring it, as there is in South Carolina, for example. So the Brown v. Board decision, which we rightly focus on, directs our attention to the South, but when we point our attention to the North, we see that the same unequal segregated school system is produced through different practices, but the results are very much the same. And then think about how that then affects opportunities throughout one's working life if they are receiving an unequal education, if they're shut out from universities too, if employment offices are closed to them, that basis of segregation fans out in the North.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: David, I can't thank you enough for these tremendous insights. Appreciate you so much.

David Krugler: Thank you, Hasan. It's just been great to talk with you, and I really appreciate the opportunity.

Bethany Jay: David Krugler is a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He is the author of several books, including 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back. He is a former Institute for Research in the Humanities Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. David is also a novelist who has written multiple Cold War spy thrillers, like Rip the Angels from Heaven.

Bethany JayTeaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.

Bethany Jay: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight—examining its history and lasting impact.

Bethany Jay: Thanks to Dr. Krugler for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.

Bethany Jay: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.

Bethany Jay: I'm Dr. Bethany Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.

References

 

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Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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