Teaching the Good and Bad of History Empowers Students to Build Just CommunitiesRoundup
tags: racism, culture war, teaching history, education history, critical race theory
Mirelsie Velázquez is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies and the Rainbolt Family Endowed Education Presidential professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her book, Puerto Rican Chicago: Schooling the City, 1940-1977, is forthcoming in January 2022 with University of Illinois Press.
This summer, even as some Oklahomans commemorated and reflected on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the entwined histories of racism and the fight for justice that have unfolded across the state and nation, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed into law House Bill 1775, which seeks to prohibit all school employees from instructing that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” The legislation’s proponents claim to be safeguarding children from discomfort and unpleasantness.
In refusing to acknowledge, much less claim “responsibility,” for the darker chapters of Oklahoma’s history, the bill’s authors are preventing a full retelling of the past in the state’s classrooms. But only such a complete retelling reveals the noble efforts of Black and Indigenous Oklahomans, dating back even before statehood, to fight for educational equality and a fairer and more just state. Learning this history promises a generation of strong thinkers, with skills for engaging one another and the historical literacy that can help build better communities.
State legislators and nativists alike point to the Land Run of 1889 and the “opening” of land to non-Indigenous settlement as a historical starting point worthy of celebration by schoolchildren.
But long before White farmers and business executives rushed to claim the “unassigned land,” dozens of tribes of varying sizes and thousands of enslaved and newly freed African Americans populated the territory that today is Oklahoma. They even banded together to challenge attempts by White settlers to push them further to the margins.
After the Civil War, all-Black towns grew in Indian and Oklahoma Territory as people formerly enslaved by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes settled together for mutual protection, economic security and the possibility of more.
Like countless other Black families, the Wilson family relocated to the newly created Oklahoma Territory in 1890 as news traveled of the opportunity to own property and attend integrated schools. Yet, integrated schools only lasted for a short time in Guthrie, where the Wilsons settled. The county soon enacted segregation policies that forced Black families to attend separate schools.
But the Wilsons refused to accept this new reality. Instead, they took their fight for educational justice to the territory’s courts. And they won the first battle in court, in Wilson v. Marion in 1892, when a lower court ruled that this policy was discriminatory. Ultimately, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the decision in Wilson in Marion v. Territory (1893), but the Wilson family’s commitment to their children’s educational opportunities and those of their Black neighbors planted the seed for future Oklahomans to seek change when confronted with bigotry.