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.
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:
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.
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.
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.