Key Issues

History That Goes Untaught


My social media feeds were recently filled with people lamenting the fact they were just now learning about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Many of these friends were also publicly wondering how they hadn’t even heard about the massacre until 100 years after it happened.

From May 31 to June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents, many of whom had been given weapons and were deputized by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than 35 square blocks of the most prosperous Black community in the United States had been leveled and we didn’t collectively know about it.

I only learned of the massacre two or three years ago while reading a book that mentioned it in passing. I reread that paragraph multiple times because certainly I should have already known about this, right? Why didn’t we know about such an event for nearly a century? Why wasn’t it in our history books?

It isn’t just me and my Facebook friends who are wondering why we collectively have varying levels of understanding about Black history. This is likely because the history that is most often taught is centered on whiteness and doesn’t spend an equitable amount of time examining the history of other racial groups. If we singularly see our history through the lens of whiteness it’s no surprise that racially motivated events like the Tulsa race massacre have long gone untaught.

But what can we do? We need to begin by insisting that the history we are exposed to, both in school and in life, isn’t centered on whiteness. Reframing our country’s history to include racial groups that have been oppressed, marginalized and exploited benefits all of us by acknowledging a true version of history.

How many of us knew the significance of June 19 before it became a federal holiday? Juneteenth has been celebrated informally since 1866, the first anniversary of enslaved people in Texas learning they’d been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation three years earlier. The Senate unanimously approved legislation for the new holiday as did all but 14 members of the House, and the president signed it into law June 17, 2021, creating Juneteenth National Independence Day.

One dissenter was Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), who called Juneteenth part of a “hard-left agenda to enshrine the racial history of this country as the prime aspect of our national story.” A conservative activist went further, tweeting “This is about replacing July 4th — just like The 1619 Project is about replacing 1776.”

In 2019 The New York Times published The 1619 Project on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia.

The project aims to reframe the history of the United States “by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” This expanded look at our history was developed through essays, photos, and a collection of fiction and poems in the August 2019 edition of The New York Times Magazine, a section in the Sunday New York Times, a podcast, and The 1619 Project Curriculum for schools, created in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center. Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay.

The 1619 Project Curriculum is more than just the essays in the magazine or photographs in the special Sunday section; it includes free online lesson plans, a network of teacher-created lessons to be shared and distributed, and it helps arrange speakers for schools across the country. It has caused controversy among historians and journalists grappling with foundational issues and methods of research and reporting in a rigorous public debate, which is all to the good.

There has also been a considerable amount of backlash.

Earlier this month nine U.S. Senators introduced a bill that would cut federal funding for schools that present lessons based on The 1619 Project. Parents across the country are angry with school districts that continue to supplement their traditional curricula with resources from the 1619 Project Curriculum.

But why? Are we so threatened by a closer look at history that challenges the long standing narrative viewed through the lens of whiteness? Are we afraid to admit that the history we’ve all been taught simply isn’t enough?

If efforts like The 1619 Project make us reexamine long held beliefs about our history, it is a benefit to us all. We need to know more and we need to understand the interconnection of history and how it affects everything about our current world. We can no longer wait a century to learn about relevant historic events. We need to understand their impact now if we are going to learn who we are.

Meredith Browand is a mother and activist who lives in Purdy.