Going Beyond Black Wall Street: Opening Students to a World of Black Heritage in their Own Backyard

This post was written by educator Dr. Alicia Odewale.

Growing up in Tulsa, I heard stories about Greenwood from my father, who served as an educator in North Tulsa at McClain High School for over 30 years, before I ever heard about it in school. No one ever told me how our family might be connected to this history. All I knew as a child was that my mom was born in Tuskegee, Alabama (with all of its loaded history) and my dad came from Cleveland, Tennessee (a city situated next to a Sundown town known as Ducktown – the name made famous by the slogan “any Blacks caught here better duck”). And as far as I knew, we were the first generation in our family to make the journey from the deep south to Oklahoma territory. Or so I thought, but that is a separate story I am exploring in my role as a storyteller for the 2892 Miles to Go Project

Me at 6 months old with my mom and dad in Tulsa, OK.

It wasn’t until I enrolled at Booker T. Washington High School, a historically Black school located on the north side of town and known for being one of the few standing structures left after the attack in 1921, that I got my first taste of Black history from someone other than a family member. It was in my first Oklahoma history class taught by the late Ms. Barbara Coleman that I learned about Greenwood as well as all of Oklahoma’s All-Black Towns and from then on I considered Greenwood to be a Black town separate and distinct from Tulsa. The next year when I walked into my first IB history class with Howard educated lawyer turned educator – Dr. Anthony Marshall, I learned about Greenwood as a community that while wrecked by white mob violence in 1921, fought to rebuild immediately after and continues to fight for justice today. It was through the eyes of these Black educators that I was introduced to a new world, a world fashioned out of complex layers of history built up overtime which connected a past and present day legacy of Black resilience in Oklahoma. Now that I am an educator myself teaching anthropology and archaeology at The University of Tulsa, it has been a labor of love to bring all of my own experiences into the classroom and introduce a new generation of students to a world of Black heritage that so many people came together to build.

My idea to share the overlooked contributions that Black men, women, and children made to Oklahoma history was born in 2020 while I was pregnant with my son and trying to plan out what I would teach when I returned to work after my parental leave was over. But as I started to create a reading list for the class still forming in my mind, the world around my city was spinning as so many people across the nation were just waking up to the knowledge that the Tulsa Race Massacre was a real event and not just a dramatic story anchoring the HBO Watchmen series. As the double pandemic of COVID-19 and police brutality against unarmed Black people continued to spread in the face of global Black Lives Matter protests, our search for mass graves started to gain national attention and the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre drew closer. As one of the only Black archaeologists working in this part of the world, I began to receive media requests from places as far away as Sweden for me to lend my thoughts to an ever growing number of new Tulsa centered projects. I decided to pour my frustration into creating what became the #TulsaSyllabus, an online resource guide to help the wider public understand the historical context surrounding the Tulsa Race Massacre and how a legacy of racial violence connects past and present day events in Oklahoma. Launching the syllabus on the day of Juneteenth successfully shifted the focus away from all that was happening around us, allowing us the space to acknowledge our resiliency through time on our own terms. Creating the syllabus alongside Dr. Karla Slocum of UNC Chapel Hill, gave me the spring board I needed to finally make this course I was dreaming of a reality. 

Content from #TulsaSyllabus.

This fall semester of 2021, marking the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, was the first time in TU’s history that a course centering Greenwood would be taught from an archaeological perspective, and only the second time any course on Black heritage would be taught by a Black woman, following TU’s first Black faculty member, Dr. Cecelia Nails-Palmer, who herself was a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre. My new course, ‘The Archaeology of Black Heritage in Oklahoma’, was launched with 16 brave students, a mix of both graduate and undergraduate students, who were mostly from Oklahoma but all very excited to explore the story behind the Tulsa Race Massacre. My only goal was to try to do for them what my teachers did for me, open them to a new way of thinking about the world, but now the class has taken on a life of its own. 

While the class seeks to help students understand what sparked the birth of the Historic Greenwood District and the hate that surrounded this community, it goes beyond Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre to explore the roles that Black people played in making Oklahoma what it is today. Using archives, archaeology, genealogy, oral history, digital storytelling, and geospatial tools, students are learning the power of counter mapping and vernacular history collection to challenge mainstream, single story narratives of history and reimagine cultural heritage landscapes. As we examine the role that race played in Oklahoma’s shifting landscape and the lasting impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years later, students explore diverse topics in Oklahoma history specifically from the perspective of the Black men, women and children who lived during these times and the objects they left behind. Course topics include the early intersections of race within Indian Territory and the fight for Freedpeople’s rights, Black war veterans and Buffalo Soldiers on Oklahoma’s frontier, Black cowboys and lawmen/women, Oklahoma’s All-Black Towns, Anti-Black Violence and Community Resilience, the search for safety in the Jim Crow South, and stories of Black innovation and resilience even in the midst of a landscape of racial terror. 

A screen capture of our virtual class in action. The Archaeology of Black Heritage in Oklahoma, a new online class offering in the department of Anthropology at The University of Tulsa.

Now that we are nearing the end of our journey together, I asked my students to share one thing they have learned so far that they will carry with them beyond this class and perhaps impact how they see the world in the future. Some of their responses are as follows…

“I have lived in Oklahoma my entire life and never knew that there was such a high density of all-Black towns here. Knowing context, like the commonplace establishment of independent Black communities, is critical to understanding the extent of racial terror that took place in Oklahoma and how the forces at play historically are still pervasive today. I think that the most important thing that we have learned so far in the class is the ubiquitous erasure of Black voices and Black history in Oklahoma. From pre-statehood with the enslavement of Black people in “Indian Territory” to 1921 and beyond, so many experiences have been hidden. Nearly every discussion involves unlearning a single-perspective narrative and adding information from multiple angles.”

Jalen, TU Student, Biology major

“I thought the Greenwood Unbroken course would solely focus on the event immediately before, during, and after the massacre. However, the course turned out to be an open space for discussion about all unjust events. I realized I wasn’t alone in my outrage of the injustice African Americans faced.”

Michelle, TU Student, Biochemistry & Anthropology major

“This course has emphasized the responsibility of students, scholars, and intellectuals to work against the erasure of marginalized and dispossessed peoples. The process of erasure extends beyond the physical acts themselves to the archives from which we conduct our research. The biases of white men who perpetrated these acts become the official record; their single-story narratives become fact. It thus becomes the responsibility of conscious individuals who occupy these spaces, with access to the archives, to work against this erasure and create alternative histories to the pedagogically classist, patriarchal history which presently dominates. It is this responsibility which I will carry with me for the rest of my days, in my studies, my work, and my everyday life.”

Gary, TU Student, Anthropology major

“Prior to this class, my knowledge of Black Oklahomans outside of the Tulsa Race Massacre was admittedly dismal. The majority of the narratives I knew involved devastating racial trauma that lacked historical context and told a single-story narrative of the events. The Tulsa Race Massacre was a tragedy of unimaginable scale that destroyed and burned thousands of lives to the ground, and its details are not spoken of nearly enough. However, the themes that will stick with me even more prominently are the resilience, power, and agency that Black Oklahomans exhibited amidst extreme adversity and oppression”

Caroline, TU Graduate Student

“I learned more about The First Nations in this class than I have ever before. The enslavement of African Americans by the First Nations never occurred to me. My family tree includes the bloodline of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. My grandmother grew up on farm land that was owned by her father, which was received as a land allotment from the Muscogee Tribe. I always wondered why my grandma grew up on land that was “given” to them, but it all makes sense now.”

Erica, TU Student, Sociology major

As they are learning, my students have now gone through cycles of shock, anger, disgust, pride, and yet remained hopeful and have now pushed to take the class a step further to share the work we are doing with the world. The first thing we did was create a course blog so that they could virtually share their experiences and their own research projects with the public outside of our isolated classroom space. 

An image from Dr. Odewale’s course blog.

Each student has been researching one person of African or Afro-Indigenous heritage who carved out their own form of Black freedom in Oklahoma and in doing so made history. These virtual heritage story projects are still in progress but are part of a larger body of interdisciplinary research that blends archival research, archaeology, genealogical records, and oral histories together to tell a more complete story of someone’s lived experience in the past. But what has given this work new meaning is pairing their stories with more extensive research in Black geographies. As an exercise in counter-mapping, each student is now working to place their selected person onto a map of Black Heritage in Oklahoma and discuss how this individual connects to history and a larger landscape of Black culture sites in the state. 

National Geographic’s Map Maker tool offers a plethora of base maps and guides to help educators incorporate mapping into their active lessons at the K-12 level. But our class of undergrad and graduate students use the Google maps custom map building platform to build a map of Black heritage sites due to its free and open access format, simplified base maps, user interface which most students are already familiar with using for navigation purposes, and easy drag and drop landscape marking tools that allow people with no experience in coding or geospatial analysis to become mappers in their own right. 

What makes this collaborative mapping project such a valuable experience is that once I shared the link to the class map and made them all editors, each student could then build their own layer in the map and have these layers overlay and connect to one another in this virtual geographic space. With every new place marker, trail line, and polygon that’s then linked to archival and archaeological evidence they are rendering that which is invisible above ground today, able to be seen again and bearing witness to erasure while simultaneously reclaiming what was lost. The act of creating an alternative map of Oklahoma is an act in reclaiming power, as each student is now taking part in reimagining the landscape as they see it now after taking this class, and placing sites that were burned down through state-sanctioned violence, stolen through redlining, urban development and gentrification, or simply overlooked and left out of historical narratives onto the present day landscape. It’s through this reimagining of the landscape that new discoveries are being made in real time. For example, I was shocked to find another one of my ancestors through this mapping work who came to Greenwood and owned her own grocery store at 709 N. Greenwood in 1921 as a Black woman. Her name was Mary Ware, but today there is no sign of her store as you walk through Greenwood’s Historic District, it’s hidden underneath a campus parking lot belonging to Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, whose campus footprint has swallowed up a large chunk of the Greenwood community’s remaining lands.   

The map Dr. Odewale’s course is building.

Between the virtual heritage stories, All-Black towns research, Blog post assignment and now the Black Heritage Mapping exercise, I’m excited to see how all the work my students are doing will add to and change what we know about the Black experience in Oklahoma in the past as they continue to share the legacy of people, places, objects, and stories that are too often forgotten in the present. As an educator, archaeologist, descendant of a survivor, native Tulsan, and Wayfinder my goal is to find more of these places that may be hidden underneath our modern landscape or ignored in the process of retelling and teaching only certain histories. 

But you don’t have to be an archaeologist to do collaborative projects with your students that centralize the global lived experiences of Black people in the past and present day. For example, our class made use of digitized resources that were publicly available in our university library as well as the local Tulsa city county library, and the Oklahoma Historical Society to give students the opportunity to engage with primary source material as they developed their own research projects. My students were shocked to learn that Oklahoma at one time had over 13 Black-owned newspapers that all share rich stories of how the Black experience changed through time, written by the Black men and women who lived through those times. For any educators looking to explore more stories of Black heritage hidden in your own backyard, I would encourage you to take advantage of the following in your area…

  • Local school/university archives
  • Local city-county library
  • Cultural/Tribal centers
  • City/state historical society
  • State Historic Preservation/SHPOs Office
  • List of National Landmarks/Registry of Historic Places in your area
  • Find your state site files to explore archaeological sites in your area related to Black heritage 
  • Museum archives

Outside of these local sources of Black culture, history, and archaeology, there is also a wealth of information available online, as multiple organizations across the country have created online resource guides and lesson plans designed to support educators with tools to engage with students on a deeper level. Just to name a few, The National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington D.C.) has specific resources and lesson plans designed for 3rd-12th grade educators, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York) has research guides and the Schomburg syllabus, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Ohio) has activities and lesson plans to pair with virtual exhibits, and the Equal Justice Initiative (Alabama) has their Lynching in America lesson plan – all available for free. However, it is recommended that resources like these be paired with specific training in anti-racist, trauma informed, and/or culturally relevant teaching methods as not to further traumatize already marginalized students when introducing lessons that bring Black trauma to the surface. 

Me standing in front of a large map installed at the opening of the Pathway to Hope in Tulsa, OK. The map created by Parker VanValkenburgh and myself illustrates two different periods of disruption for the Historic Greenwood District, and outlines the historic structures and roadways lost in the process.

As I’m exploring more of my own story, I can feel a sense of fulfilled purpose. It seems like all my life experience, my training in African Diaspora archaeology, the long road to getting my PhD and my love for my Tulsa community has led me to find one ancestor after another. It’s as if they were waiting for me to find them all along and now it seems everywhere I look I find family and learn more about myself in the process. We have so many more stories to explore about Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma. We are just getting started. We still have 2,892 miles to cover. 

Dr. Odewale is an archaeologist, Tulsa native, great grandniece of a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor, and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulsa, specializing in African Diaspora archaeology in the Caribbean and Southeastern United States with a theoretical focus on community-centered, restorative justice, anti-racist and Black feminist archaeology. Since 2014, she has been researching archaeological sites related to Afro-Caribbean heritage on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands but continues to research sites of Black heritage in her home state of Oklahoma. Her latest research project based in Tulsa, Oklahoma works alongside other local Tulsans to reanalyze historical evidence from the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, launch new community-based archaeological investigations in the historic Greenwood district, and use radical mapping techniques to visualize the impact of the massacre through time on the landscape of Greenwood. She is the co-creator of the #TulsaSyllabus, an online resource guide that dives into the history and archaeology of Black enslavement, landownership, anti-black violence, and the rise of prosperous Black communities in Oklahoma. She is a lead storyteller with the 2892 Miles to Go Geographic Walk for Justice project from the National Geographic Society and a Speaker with National Geographic Live, with her own show entitled “Greenwood: A Century of Resilience”. Dr. Odewale and the other members of the 2892 Tulsa team are among a collective of other storytellers across the U.S. whose Community Storytelling Journeys will unearth experiences of human history and culture across communities. Follow along with #2892MilestoGo.

National Geographic Education is celebrating Geography Awareness Week all week long on the Education Blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Check in regularly to hear from educators about their innovative and inspiring approaches to teaching geography, and learn how National Geographic tools and resources can help you empower your students to think geographically.

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