In this article, Rethinking Schools editor and language arts teacher Linda Christensen describes a section of Stealing Home, a unit she created about ways the homes of people of color have been stolen through "race riots" and "urban renewal" in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Los Angeles' Chavez Ravine; and Portland, Oregon's Albina neighborhood. This is the first of a two-part series about the unit.
I teach language arts, so why would I teach my students about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot? In language arts circles, we discuss reading as a window to the world, but in a country plagued with foreclosures and homelessness, we need to question the world we're gazing at: How are contemporary evictions a historical reach from the past? What has happened to black and brown communities? Why do people of color have less inherited wealth than whites? The untold history—the buried stories—reveals patterns that affect our students' current lives, from eviction notices to the hunger of deep poverty. I can wax poetic about the importance of story in students' lives, but reading literature of poverty and despair without offering a historical explanation leaves students with little understanding about how things came to be the way they are. And that's worth reading and writing about.
Jefferson High School, where I co-teach a junior language arts class with Dianne Leahy—a wonderful teacher who allows me to keep my teaching chops alive by creating and teaching curriculum with her—is located in a gentrifying neighborhood that once was the heart of the Af.rican American community in Portland. Families were pushed out of their homes because of urban renewal beginning in the 1960s and again, more recently, because of gentrification. As the price of homes rises in what is now called the "Alberta Arts Neighborhood," most of our students' families can no longer afford to live in our school's neighborhood. They live in apartments on the outskirts of the city, and a number ride buses or the commuter train to come to school at Jefferson.
For me, learning about the history of the Tulsa Race Riot coincided with the current economic crisis that has led to epic foreclosures and evictions. I realized that, like many people, the majority of my family "wealth" is tied up in our home. We drew on that wealth to send our daughters to college. They will inherit the house, and the wealth it represents, when my husband and I pass on. The story of Tulsa may be an extreme instance of violent dispossession, but it highlights a pattern of historical expulsions and exclusions that explains the lack of inherited wealth in black and brown communities. According to historian Hannibal B. Johnson, "The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was set against a backdrop of a multitude of race riots in America. 1919 was known as 'red summer' because blood was flowing in the streets. There were over 25 major riots in 1919 in America." (See Eliot Jaspin's book Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America for more on this topic.) The complicit silence of textbooks about the history of race riots and racial exclusions that pushed black people off their lands and out of their homes keeps our students ignorant about the reasons for the lack of economic resources in the black community. Instead students must imagine why their people lack wealth: Unwise spending? Laziness? Ignorance?
The term "race riot" does not adequately describe the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, in Tulsa. Though some sources labeled the episode a "race riot" or a "race war," implying that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for lawlessness and violence, the historical record documents that what occurred was a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others. During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans; they looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks, including 1,265 African American homes, hospitals, schools, churches, and 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen; 9,000 African Americans were left homeless and living in tents well into the winter of 1921.