2019-02-28

By Jasmine Washington, City Year Tulsa AmeriCorps member, and her partner teacher, Diane D’Costa

My partner teacher and I often discuss how and why she chose to become a teacher in Tulsa, OK, and what she knew about its history before coming here with Teach For America.

Being born and raised in Tulsa, I wanted to share my hometown’s history with her. After talking and sharing stories with each other, we decided to take our students on a field trip to Black Wall Street.

My partner teacher, Diane D’Costa, now shares her reflections on our visit to the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, OK:

“As a Marylander, I did not know much about Oklahoma, let alone Tulsa, before moving here this summer. But, upon my move to this hidden gem of a city, I quickly learned just how rich the history of this place truly is.

Once I committed to Teach for America in Tulsa, I started to dive into what this city had to offer. I heard about Oilers games, a growing art scene, and of course the opening of the Gathering Place. It took a little more digging to hear about the excellence, wealth, and vibrancy of the Greenwood Community.

Black Wall Street, a foundational component of Tulsa history, fascinated me: the wealthiest Black town in America. It seemed to share a story of Black wealth I’ve only seen portrayed fictionally—a real-life version of Coming to America or Black Panther’s Wakanda of sorts.

Yet, of course, on the heels of discovering the history of Black Wall Street and the vibrancy of Greenwood, I soon was met with the story of the tragedy and trauma that came along with the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.

When I first moved to Tulsa, I had the opportunity to tour the Greenwood Cultural Center and reflect in Reconciliation Park with other Teach for America corps members. As a Jewish woman of color, I could not help but feel empathy for the generational trauma and lasting reverberations that an act of hate can have on a community.

Less than a year prior, I had experienced the direct hatred of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my University and beloved home was terrorized by hateful and violent groups. I cannot begin to imagine how the vicious violence affected the Greenwood Community in 1921, but I surely felt an obligation to share the history, both the beautiful and tragic, with my future students.

In my Oklahoma History classes at McLain High School in North Tulsa, we spent an entire unit learning about All-Black Towns and the opportunity they provided to Black people following the end of the Civil War. We discussed Jim Crow and the very real segregation at the time that was intentionally weaved into the fabric of Oklahoma statehood.

Students learned the distinctions between prejudice, discrimination, segregation, and racism. We read about what made Black Wall Street special and the history of the massacre that was too often untold.

We also heard from community leaders who are currently doing work to remember the legacy of Black Wall Street and help support today’s North Tulsa community. We closed our unit with a seminar debating whether or not the Tulsa Race Massacre victims’ descendants should get reparations and visited the Greenwood Cultural Center and Reconciliation Park to see the exact places in our community that we were learning about.

It was beautiful to see students engage with a history that hit so close to home. Whether it was walking along the street and taking a moment to read the plaques to commemorate Black-owned businesses on Greenwood and Archer streets or discussing how North Tulsa’s strength today is defined in part from the resiliency of its past, students brought a new kind of curiosity and urgency to their learning.

My students continue to impress me as they digest our past and interpret what that means for them as they contribute to our present and future.”

Many of City Year’s foundational values speak to “believing in the power of young people,” “social justice for all,” and “building a beloved community.” Working with my partner teacher to help our students not only learn about but learn from Tulsa’s history of Black Wall Street makes me feel like we are staying true to those values and making sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

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