“Should our schools now teach the truth about Tulsa? Yes, and they should also stop the battle to whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students. America’s history is messy but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people.”
— Tom Hanks
That was Tom Hanks, the Academy Award-winning actor who’s starred in historical fiction projects on the big and small screen such as “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Forrest Gump.”
Hanks, 64, considers himself a history buff. But he reveals in a New York Times column published on Friday that he still didn’t know about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until just last year.
“But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla.,” he writes in the column that went viral on Twitter
on Friday afternoon.
One hundred years ago this week, an unsubstantiated assault claim made by a white woman against a Black man, combined with simmering white jealousy over the prosperous Black business district in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, spurred a white mob to burn the area to the ground. And over roughly 24 hours beginning on May 31, 1921, as many as 300 people were killed, and at least $1.47 million — or more than $20 million in today’s dollars — of Black-owned homes and businesses were destroyed.
The Tulsa Race Massacre wiped out generations of Black wealth, but it was largely swept under the rug. And in Oklahoma, the state’s public schools referred to it as the “Tulsa race riot” — when it was brought up at all. The massacre largely wasn’t discussed in its own home state until a commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. And a new state law could derail progress in teaching about the tragedy, The Wall Street Journal reports. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a law on May 7 that restricts public-school teachers and employees from using lessons that make an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Hanks argues in his column that white Americans such as himself need to lean into the discomfort in order to learn from it.
“The truth about Tulsa, and the repeated violence by some white Americans against Black Americans, was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young white ears,” he continues. “So, our predominantly white schools didn’t teach it, our mass appeal works of historical fiction didn’t enlighten us, and my chosen industry didn’t take on the subject in films and shows until recently.” The streaming series “Watchman” and “Lovecraft Country,” which are available on Netflix
and HBO Max, are among the few that have tackled the tragic events in their storylines.
Hanks’s piece drew praise on Twitter, and “Tom Hanks” was among the top trending terms on the social media platform on Friday afternoon.
But some also noted that, as much as Hanks could be celebrated for using his platform to condemn systemic racism, equal attention should be paid to the Black academics who have been trying to educate the world about Tulsa for generations.
“How different would perspectives be had we all been taught about Tulsa in 1921, even as early as the fifth grade?” Hanks added. “Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered.”