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A layered understanding of history: studying the Tulsa Race Massacre

Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dr. David Gray, teaching assistant professor of the Special Topics in American Studies: The Tulsa Race Massacre class.

As Tulsa approaches 100 years since one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a growing wave of coverage and conversations about the once-hushed event has hit journalism and popular culture.

The American studies program at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa offers an in-depth study of the event and the broader context surrounding it with Special Topics in American Studies: The Tulsa Race Massacre, a class offered this fall.

“What we’re really interested in American studies is synthesis,” said Dr. David Gray, teaching assistant professor in American studies at OSU-Tulsa. “As a discipline, American studies allows for a lot of different tools to analyze an event and create an informed understanding.”

Examining the Massacre

The Tulsa Race Massacre was a two-day long attack on the city’s predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood, where a white mob killed hundreds and burned down 35 blocks of homes and businesses.

The American studies course not only examines the history of the massacre and its consequences, but also related events and media from both before and after the massacre.

Throughout the course, students explore sources that include first-hand accounts, oral histories, academic histories, newspaper reports, a novel, photographs, documentaries and public art.

By examining the Massacre in national, state-level and local contexts, and tracing longer-term developments around race in the previous decades, Gray hopes to offer students a broad framework for studying the events of May 31 and June 1.  

“Often when we talk about the massacre, we focus on the events of those two days, the immediate events themselves and the aftermath. We don't often look at the broader historical dynamics from which it emerged,” Gray said.

Exploring Histories 

To explore the historical dynamics connected to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, students in his course need to first dive into what preceded the massacre.

The class first studies the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, the proliferation of all-black towns, the Trail of Tears and the “Red Summer” of 1919, where attacks and riots against people of color took place in more than three dozen cities across the country.

“The goal is to provide students with a layered understanding of history,” Gray said.

Gray also hopes to engage his students with the sites and people directly tied to Greenwood and the massacre.

Taking field trips to important sites is more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gray has some virtual tools to engage with relevant people and places.

As part of the course, Gray has organized two free public virtual discussions, including a conversation with journalist and author of “The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” Tim Madigan on Oct. 22 as well as a conversation with Jerica Wortham and William Cordova, the Project Manager and Lead Artist respectively for the Greenwood Art Project on Nov. 19.

Gray hopes these dialogues can help students – and anybody else who would like to participate – understand how history can form the layers of the world we live in today.

“We need to be in conversation with journalists, authors, artists, businesses, activists and educators, the Greenwood Cultural Center, the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and others,” Gray said. “We need to create meaningful connections between what we teach and what’s going on in the community.”

Non-student members of the public interested in the Oct. 22 conversation with author and journalist Tim Madigan or the Nov. 19 conversation with Jerica Wortham and William Cordova can register for free online.

Gray, on a field trip with students of his Tulsa Public Cultures class in 2017.

Media Contact: Aaron Campbell | 918-594-8046 |