Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Once upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma,

prospectors struck it rich in the oil fields.

The wealth created jobs, raised buildings,

and attracted newcomers from far and wide,

seeking fortune and a fresh start.

Text ©️Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustration ©️Floyd Cooper

Carol Boston Weatherford, a skilled writer, has chosen to set the tone with a fairytale “once upon a time” beginning that is repeated on several opening spreads, showing different aspects of a thriving Black community. Until we reach an ominous page filled with shadow, one leading to the inciting incident, where the text notes that not everyone was pleased with the success of the Black community. This presentation is purposeful and effective, as it serves to provide stark contrast—happy lives filled with hard-won success vs. the horrific events that followed, while also providing a small degree of psychic distance for the reader as the events play out. The fairytale approach also highlights how this prosperous community of Black citizens disappeared overnight, as if destroyed by an evil spell. The evil spell of racism.

And while we hope for a happy ever after ending, we are far, far from reaching that goal.

The evil was covered up for the next 75 years. It was not until 1997 that an investigation was launched, finding in the end that police and city officials had plotted with the white mob to destroy the thriving Black community of Greenwood.

And all it took was one elevator ride, one accusation from a white 17-year-old female elevator operator aimed at a Black man, to raise the ire of the white population who then wanted to lynch him. A group of 30 Black men tried to intervene against a mob of 2,000 whites. Fights between the two groups left two Black men and ten white men dead. Overnight, the white mob attacked and torched entire city blocks of Greenwood, preventing firefighters from fighting the blazes, and sending residents running for their lives, with little more than they could carry.

More than 300 Black people were murdered, hundreds injured, and more than 8,000 were left homeless. Hundreds of businesses in an area called “Black Wall Street” were destroyed.

Charges against the Black shoeshine man were dropped the next day, and the coverup began.

The image in the book that strikes most at my heart is this one:

Text ©️Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustration ©️Floyd Cooper

Those little girls are gazing at me. And as a white reader, I am struck by the expression of distrust, anger, disbelief, fear, and perhaps an element of shock. The look from the older girl, her arm protecting her little sister, is withering. In our country, these little girls have learned they must be on guard against those who would do them harm or treat them differently just because of the color of their skin. And that is still true today.

There is now a memorial to this massacre in Greenwood’s Reconciliation Park. Three bronze sculptures representing hostility, humiliation, and hope serve as a reminder that we must choose hope, AND we must also choose to be anti-racist, taking a stand against injustice, hatred, and violence.

The front end papers show an illustration of what Greenwood looked like before the massacre, and the back end papers show an actual photo of the destruction, an extremely effective way to emphasize the idyllic world of Greenwood before, and the stark reality after.

Thank you, Carole Boston Weatherford for writing this book, and Floyd Cooper for bringing the text to life with your images.

Activities:

Use the Educator’s Guide to spur reflection, discussion, and action.

Learn how to talk to kids about anti-racism. A list of resources.

Pair this book with Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book by Keila Dawson and talk about some of the ways Black people have been discriminated against in the United States.

Read books that celebrate Black lives.

Title: Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Author: Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrator: Floyd Cooper

Publisher: CarolRhoda Books, Lerner Publishing, 2021

Ages: 1st grade and older

Themes: U.S. History, racism, truth

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

10 thoughts on “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Beth Anderson says:

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing this book. This event was not anything I’d heard of until recently. I’m so glad kids now are getting a more complete history available to them through magnificent picture books!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I agree, It’s time we faced our real history, and not just what was “allowed” into our history books. Recently, I found out that a similar event happened in Springfield, Illinois. So much has been buried by those in power, that’s just now being excavated. This book is quite moving.

  2. Patricia Tilton says:

    I am very familiar with Tulsa and only recently heard about this horrific event and cover-up. Agree with your thoughts about little girls standing with mistrust. Beautiful illustrations. Am waiting on this book from the library. A lot of people want to read it!

  3. Sarah Tobias says:

    What a pairing of author and illustrator. I wish we didn’t need this book. I wish this wasn’t our history. But, I am glad that we are making our history known for all ages. It gives us an opportunity to think before we act. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Ste J says:

    Consider me educated, I hadn’t heard of this event but I am gald it is being brought to light. Hopefully lessons can be learned, especially if they start early enough.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      It was purposefully covered up and not included in history books, so two generations grew up ignorant of these horrible atrocities. I’m glad they’re being exposed, and yes, an accurate and early education about the past as a way of moving in positive direction is necessary.

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