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Learning from the Unspeakable: Teaching Ideas Centered on the Tulsa Race Massacre

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrated by Floyd Cooper 

Published by Carolrhoda Books, imprint of Lerner Books 

ISBN: 978-1-5415-8120-3

Grades 4 and Up 

Book Review

Unspeakable begins by telling the backstory of the financial autonomy and accumulated wealth of independent Black-owned businesses in the Greenwood neighborhood of segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma at the start of the 20th century. In this nonfiction verse picture book, author Carole Boston Weatherford informs her readers that the residents of Greenwood were “descended from Black Indians,/from formerly enslaved people, and from Exodusters,/who moved West in the late 1800s fleeing/the violence and racism of the segregated South.” Known as “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood’s wealth was fueled in part by an oil boom and in part from segregation. Money spent in the community stayed within the community. Businesses and families flourished until May 31, 1921, when white Tulsa turned viciously on the residents of Greenwood in a vile and violent massacre, the largest race massacre in U.S. history. Not even children were spared. Only in the very recent past has the Tulsa community begun to openly communicate about and investigate what happened during those terrible days. Half the book is devoted to describing Greenwood in its heyday, the other devoted to the massacre and its silent aftermath. Floyd Cooper’s illustrations, rendered in “oil and erasure” offer essential historic and emotional context. Back matter includes both author’s and illustrator’s notes. Weatherford and Cooper share their own familial and emotional connections, Weatherford’s to acts of racial violence perpetrated on her family, Cooper’s to the Tulsa Massacre itself. A Tulsa native, Cooper recalls the day his grandfather, a survivor, shared his eyewitness account. While there is no bibliography, acknowledgements on the verso page thank Hannibel B. Johnson, chair of the 2021 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, for reviewing the manuscript. Weatherford and Cooper’s fusion of art and history bring to light a shameful episode a century ago that allows teachers, librarians, young people, and their families to reconsider our present and reaffirm our commitments to anti-racism.  

Teaching Ideas and Invitations 

Note our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you! 

Grades 4 and Up

Exploring Writer’s Craft. The beginning of this incredibly painful book begins with the phrase, “Once upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma. On the next two-page spread, the text begins, “Once upon a time in Tulsa.” The next two page spread begins, “Once upon a time in Greenwood,” the Tulsa neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century. Weatherford continues to use this phrase even when describing events of  the massacre. Have your students discuss her word choice and the reasons why she might have been so intentional with a phrase we associate with childhood stories and fairy tales. 

Connecting to Prior Knowledge, Past and Present. For intermediate grade students, Unspeakable presents a terrifying historic moment that is difficult to comprehend. After reading the book aloud with students, have a conversation with them about where this historical information “rests” inside of them. What do they know about Black history in the United States? What came before the horrific events of this book? What came after? What connections can they make between the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and what they hear on the news today? 

Celebrating Black Communities of the Early 20th Century. Unspeakable opens by telling the story of accumulated Black wealth and the financial autonomy of independent Black businesses in the Greenwood neighborhood of segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma at the start of the 20th century. Have your students explore another Black community in the early 20th century: Harlem, New York. Using the resources below (see Further Explorations), have students read and learn more about Black culture and Black history in Harlem. Feel free to also explore Beale Street in Memphis or other “Black Wall Streets” featured in this 2020 blog series from the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Next, invite someone in via teleconference from your local historical society, to share information (and ideally photographs and artifacts) of Black communities in your region during the early 20th century. 

Talking to Elders. Floyd Cooper’s illustrator’s note discusses the ways in which his grandfather, a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, was a powerful front porch storyteller. Who are the elders in your students’ community? What stories do they have to tell about your community in the past? After reading the book, have students go back and look at Cooper’s illustrations. Some faces are up close and looking out directly at the reader; other faces are looking at people and sites along the busy streets of Greenwood. What questions do your students have about the past? Invite students to interview their grandparents or neighbors about what they remember from their own childhood. Or, set-up a teleconference with residents of a local assisted living center and allow students to do small group conversations in break-out rooms with community elders. For resources in conducting oral histories, refer to these resources from the Smithsonian Institute’s Libraries and Archives.  

Grades 6 and Up 

Archeology and Black History. While official reports stated that only 36 lives were lost during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, estimates are that upwards of three hundred people were murdered during the last few months of May 1921. For the first time, in July of 2020, the City of Tulsa began excavations to look for the graves of those murdered during the massacre. In October of 2020, multiple bodies were found. Work will resume in spring of 2021, and conversations are ongoing about where to bury these victims of violence with dignity. Draw upon the resources below (see Further Explorations) to share some of this information with your students. Archeological research has been a powerful way to learn more about the lives of enslaved and free Blacks living in the United States from 1619-20th century, particularly for individuals denied literacy and the possibility of documenting their own history. Explore the advocacy work being done by The Society of Black Archeologists, particularly its fifth goal: “to ensure the communities affected by archaeological work act not just as objects of study or informants but are active makers and/or participants in the unearthing of their own history.” Have students investigate the stories about the archeological work happening in Tulsa. What evidence do the news reports and other resources shared on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission of the Black community of Tulsa being involved? 

The Draft Riots of 1863 and The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The 1921Tulsa Race Massacre is certainly not the only event in which Black Americans were suddenly and violently attacked by white Americans. One example is the Draft Riots in July, 1863, in which white New Yorkers attacked free Blacks in New York City in retribution for the federal draft. Racism amongst white New Yorkers fed the fear that free Blacks would take away the jobs of whites, a racist claim that continues on in the 21st century. Author Tonya Bolden makes the horror of the Draft Riots come alive in her middle grade biography Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl. Maritcha Lyons and her family experienced the violence and disruption of the Draft Riots first-hand, and fled Manhattan temporarily. Have students start with the picture book Unspeakable, and then read Maritcha. What is similar about each event? What is different? What are the connections students can make to contemporary acts of racist violence in the United States? Have students compare the response to the Draft Riots by New York City shopkeepers in 1863 to the business community in Tulsa in 1921. As Elizabeth Mitchell, the author of the linked op-ed piece, suggests, “The story of the merchants’ response to the so-called Draft Riots is a reminder that we can all do more if we don’t want the lives of more Black people to be marred by cruelty. That begins with having a cleareyed view of our own history. Understanding the past in a way that’s neither sugarcoated nor whitewashed will keep us moving forward.”

Understanding Complex Identities: Unspeakable and Searching for Sarah Rector. Given the limited role Black history plays in the curriculum in U.S. public elementary and middle schools, your students, regardless of their identities, may be surprised to learn about the wealthy black community in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. They may also be surprised to learn about the ways in which the Black community in Tulsa was interconnected historically with the Muscogee Creek Nation. To learn more about this complicated history in Oklahoma, pair your reading of Unspeakable with Tonya Bolden’s 2014 Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America. Sarah’s Black ancestors were born into slavery within the Creek nation in the 19th century before Creek and enslaved Blacks alike were forced to leave Alabama and the Southeast for what was then called “Indian Territory.” After the Civil War, Sarah’s ancestors were freed. As a result of the federal Dawes Allotment Act, members of Sarah’s family were given land in 1907. Sarah’s land was leased to an oil company, and as a result, she became incredibly wealthy by the time she was a teenager. Support students to make connections between the complex Rector family history and the Black residents of Greenwood in Tulsa. 

Critical Literacy 

Community Reconciliation. After reading Unspeakable, have your students watch the video “Greenwood Rising,” created for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. After watching the video, support students as they unpack the different perspectives that they hear within it. Until recently, what did residents of Tulsa know and understand about the massacre? What is changing now, and why? Who made that change happen? Ask students to talk to family members and neighbors about racial violence in your community’s history. Be mindful that some of your students’ families, like those of author Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrator Floyd Cooper, and perhaps yourself, may have a history of such violence being perpetrated upon them. Others may have a history of being the perpetrators. Still others may be recent arrivals to your community who don’t have a historical perspective from your specific community. Have a member of your local historical society teleconference into your classroom to talk about your community history. Provide students with time to research your community’s history of racial violence towards Indigenous nations, Blacks, or other ethnic groups, with sensitivity to the various identities you and your students hold within your classroom community. Have students return to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission for ideas as to how they can work with the local community and descendents of victims- or current victims – of racial violence in order to document what happened, memorialize the victims, and/or work towards greater unity in the present.   

Further Explorations 

Carole Boston Weatherford’s Official Website

Floyd Cooper’s Official Website 

Teaching Guide for Unspeakable, by Dr. Sonia Cherry-Paul, for Carolrhoda Books 

An Unspeakable Interview: Talking with Carole Boston Weatherford About the Tulsa Race Massacre, from SLJ’s Fuse 8 Blog 

Kekla Magoon’s Interview with Carole Boston Weatherford, on Cynsations

Resources on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, Tulsa, OK 

Greenwood Cultural Center, Tulsa, OK 

Digital Resources on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Curated by the African-American Resource Center of the Tulsa City-County Public Library, Tulsa, OK 

Ruth Sigler Avery Tulsa Race Massacre Archives, Digital Collections, Edmund Low Library, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa Library, Tulsa, OK 

“The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, Tulsa, OK 

WARNING: Graphic images are included in this online collection. We do not recommend sharing links with students arbitrarily. This exhibit and curation of resources will help you as an educator learn more about what happened during those painful violent days in May 1921. 

“Meet the Last Surviving Witness to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” NPR, May 31, 2018 

“The History and Legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre,” NPR, June 6, 2020 

“Oklahoma Lawsuit Seeks Reparations in Connection to 1921 Tulsa Massacre,” NPR, September 3, 2020 

Locally-Curated Stories on the 1921 Race Massacre, Tulsa Public Radio

2020 News Stories on Archeological Dig in Greenwood, Tulsa, OK

National Geographic, October 26, 2020 

Live Science, November 3, 2020

Tulsa World, January 29, 2021 

NPR, October 23, 2020

Harlem 

“Uncovering America: The Harlem Renaissance,” National Gallery of Art 

Cooper, F. 1994/1998. Coming home: from the life of Langston Hughes. Putnam and Grosset. 

Grimes, N. 2021. Legacy: Women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Ill. by V. Brantley-Newton. Bloomsbury. 

Loney, A. 2017. Take a picture of me, James Vanderzee! Ill. by K. Mallet. Lee and Low Books.  

Myers, W. D. 1997. Harlem: A poem. Ill. by C. Myers. Scholastic Press.

Myers, W. D. 2006. The Harlem Hellfighters: When pride met courage. Harper Collins. 

Nelson, V. M. 2015. The book itch: Freedom, truth, and Harlem’s greatest bookstore. Ill. by R. G. Christie. Carolrhoda Books, imprint of Lerner. 

Rhodes-Pitts, S. 2015. Jake makes a world: Jacob Lawrence, a young artist in Harlem. Ill. by C. Myers. The Museum of Modern Art. 

Ringgold, F. 2015. Harlem Renaissance party. Amistad, imprint of Harper Collins.

Weatherford, C.B. 2017. Schomburg: The man who built a library. Ill. by E. Valesquez. Candlewick Press. 

Weatherford, C.B. 2014. Sugar Hill. Ill. by R. G. Christie. Albert Whitman and Company. 

Archeological Research on Black History in the United States 

National Park Service Archeology Program: Archeology of African Americans 

The Society of Black Archeologists 

Resources on the Draft Riots 

This Biography Clearinghouse entry on Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century Girl by Tonya Bolden includes links on the Draft Riots in New York City in 1863. 

“The Real Story of the ‘Draft Riots,’” Opinion, February 18, 2021, The New York Times

Resources on Sarah Rector 


Classroom Bookshelf 2014 Entry on Searching for Sarah Rector by Tona Bolden

Who Was the Real Sarah Rector, the Richest Black Girl in America?,” Martin City Telegraph, January 19, 2020 

United Inner City Services Hope Murals Bring Attention to the Rector House,” Flatland, May 17, 2019 

Sarah Rector’s Rich History in Kansas City,” KCTV5 News

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.