Tim Madigan’s The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2001) facilitated a great discussion, and greatly changed how students in one of my classes thought about history and race.
Madigan recaps how the African American section of Tulsa Oklahoma was wiped out in 1921 after a black youth allegedly sexually assaulted a white woman. Whites first threatened lynching, and then, after African Americans massed to prevent that lynching, marched into the black section and systematically looted and burned. Equally importantly, the book records how this episode has been buried, as it recounts how black students in Tulsa, in the 1960s, had not heard of the story and could not believe it.
Students in my HIS 4414: Emergence of Modern America class reacted similarly. Several were African American, and so they were not shocked by the racism, but were by the level of hatred and destruction. They were also surprised at how prosperous Greenwood, the black section of Tulsa, had been, and by how they had never heard of it. One told me, “I’m 40 years old, and I’m not stupid, but I had never heard of it. I’d heard of Rosewood (in Florida), but never Greenwood” (personal conversation).
The book also sparked a good discussion and high quality papers, being very readable and approachable. While professors expect their students to read all books assigned (and this is a reasonable expectation), students perform better when the book they have is engaging. Madigan’s historical characterizations are compelling, making the people come to life and persuading readers (and students) to empathize with them.
This connection, in turn, allows students to understand what took place. Madigan’s use of interviews also helps, as these are not just dry narratives from the pages of a history text, but stories about real life flesh and blood. The book details the effects of the riot, both on property and on any opportunity for equality. One student noted that the riot “destroyed everything that the African Americans had built and extinguished any hope that whites and African Americans could lived side by side” (Student paper submitted 2/25/2010, M. Williams). (Student papers do have minor grammar corrections made)
Students went beyond the text to note how the reasons for the assault were related to larger issues. One student wrote: “What may have been considered innate meanness on the part of white people should properly be interpreted as their attempt to do what they thought was right to maintain order as they knew it” (Student paper submitted 2/25/2010, M. Allen). Another argued: “Whites used vicious methods against the blacks because whites wanted to be in control” (Student paper submitted 2/25/2010, A. Calhoun). A third student tied the events to the universal issue of change, and how a hatred of change caused many whites to react poorly: “Many communities fear change, but the whites here showed how much they feared the change by acting on it with violence” (Student paper submitted 2/25/2010, E. Hammonds). The beauty of this book is that all three of the answers were correct.
Control and order, in the short term, were definitely important, but a fear of change also played a prevalent role. As other historians, both those profiling the period and those detailing the KKK, have pointed out, anti-modernization and a desire for continuity were driving forces behind that organization. This book allowed these students to understand these dynamics and to comprehend the people behind the history.