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Strategic Communications class studies media messaging of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Published: Friday, January 29, 2021

The Tulsa World front page from June 1, 1921 highlights how media messages at the time worked to shaped public opinion around the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Graduate students at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa explored how words and media can shape the popular perception of events through a semester-long examination of news and messages related to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The course, “Case Studies in PR: Tulsa Race Massacre,” was offered online at OSU-Tulsa in Fall 2020. It was intended for students in the mass communications graduate program or other students with an interest in journalism.

“Our students are really interested in the types of messages that go out into the world,” said Rosemary Avance, assistant professor in the OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications. “One of the things we wanted to focus on was the responsibility that message-makers have and how they can shape perceptions of reality.”

A Deliberately Hidden History

Tulsa Tribune article from June 1, 1921.

The Tulsa Race Massacre, once referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot,” resulted in the burning, bombing and destruction of 35 blocks of Tulsa’s predominantly Black Greenwood district and left an estimated hundreds of Black residents dead. Historians consider the event one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.

“Even naming the events the ‘Tulsa Race Riot’ was a deliberate messaging tactic, designed to support the idea that there were instigators on both sides, when the truth is it was massacre of Black Tulsans by a white mob,” Avance said.

Fall 2020 was not only the start date for this course at OSU-Tulsa, but also the first semester where K-12 schools in the state were required to teach about the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“It’s pretty terrifying to analyze how effective city leaders, law enforcement and newspapers were at burying the events of the massacre. They were so successful that no one really talked about the Massacre for almost 100 years.”

Learning from Experts

In the “Case Studies in PR” course, students examined media coverage of the event from newspapers, photos and postcards. However, a majority of class time was spent in discussions with guest speakers, including journalists, historians, city leaders and members of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

“Looking at the history, you can see the effects of public relations and mass communication on not only in creating the event itself by stoking anti-Black sentiment in the first place, but also in how city leaders at the time responded to – or didn't respond to – the massacre by not acknowledging it and choosing not to rebuild,” Avance said. “There was not a single insurance policy that was accepted for any business that was burned in Greenwood. That loss was never acknowledged.”

Current Perspectives

Nicole Morgan, adjunct faculty and CEO of Tulsa public relations firm Resolute PR, organized the guest speakers list and taught the class alongside Avance.

“We were focused on the messaging and communications strategy surrounding the Massacre, but events that happened during the semester really pulled our attention, and the attention of our students and guest speakers, to the current state of race relations in our nation and in our city,” Morgan said.

National events such as protests over police brutality, as well as local events such as the controversial removal of a “Black Lives Matter” mural on Greenwood Avenue became topics of conversation in the virtual classroom. Guests and students pointed to examples in history to explore how a century’s worth of events, attitudes and communications form the current state of race relations in Tulsa and across the country.

“Current events can't be perceived in a vacuum,” Morgan said. “There’s decades and centuries of history leading to every headline.”

OSU-Tulsa is located in the historic Greenwood District, on part of the land where the Massacre occurred nearly a century ago. For Morgan and Avance – and many others at OSU-Tulsa, including the school’s leadership – engaging with the history of the Massacre is more than just a history lesson; it’s a responsibility.

“It’s also our moral duty to understand this history, especially in the School of Media and Strategic Communications,” Avance said. “We have a responsibility to create ethical messages. How a journalist covers a story, or whether they cover a story – that’s an ethical choice sometimes, and in this case you can see the effects of those decisions a hundred years later.”

To discover more classes, workshops and public events focused on the Tulsa Race Massacre and other OSU-Tulsa education and advocacy efforts related to the Massacre and the university’s home in the historic Greenwood District, explore the university’s 100 Points of Truth and Transformation.

An image showing some destruction of Greenwood as the result of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Courtesy of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa Library Special Collections and Archives.

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