Tom Hanks and the History We Need to Learn 1

Reacting to an essay by Mr. Hanks, readers discuss the Tulsa race massacre and other parts of our history, both shameful and inspiring, that are often not taught.

To the Editor:

Re “We Should All Learn About Tulsa,” by Tom Hanks (Sunday Review, June 6):

Having taught American history, first in high school and then in college, for over three decades, I agree with Tom Hanks that schools should teach about the 1921 Tulsa massacre and related episodes of white violence. But Mr. Hanks should know that many widely circulated textbooks written since he and I were in high school and college in the 1970s do, in fact, cover these events.

Among high school textbooks, for example, “American Odyssey​,” first published in 1991, has a substantive section on “Racial Unrest” during and after World War I, focusing on the 1917 attacks on Black people in Washington, D.C., but also referring to similar events in the early 1920s in Tulsa, Knoxville and Omaha. “The American People​,” from 1986, does not discuss Tulsa, but has an excellent discussion of the horrific 1919 Chicago riot, touched off by the deliberate drowning of a Black swimmer who ventured into a supposedly “white” section of Lake Michigan.

One point to be gleaned here is that the Tulsa massacre, while the deadliest example, was, unfortunately, far from unique. Another is that historians have updated our picture of the American past, so people should not judge what is in today’s textbooks based on what they remember from decades ago.

It’s up to school districts, teachers and professors to ensure that the events in the textbooks get the attention they deserve in the classroom.

Robert Shaffer
Mechanicsburg, Pa.
The writer is professor emeritus of history at Shippensburg University.

To the Editor:

The effort to learn and teach a fuller version of American history must include, as Tom Hanks so eloquently wrote, the ghastly results of racism and hostility evident in Tulsa in 1921 and in far too many places. We must also share stories that show the resilience and fortitude of Black Americans and the occasions when, working together, Americans of different races have achieved remarkable results.

The Underground Railroad, an example of cooperation across lines of race and gender, the founding of the N.A.A.C.P. in the wake of the race riot in Springfield, Ill., in 1908, and the creation of 5,000 Rosenwald Schools for Black children across the Jim Crow South — these are inspiring stories of Americans drawing strength and courage from one another. It is only in celebrating our strengths as well as acknowledging our faults that we can hope to survive as a nation.

Stephanie Deutsch
Washington
The writer is the author of “You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South.”

To the Editor:

Tom Hanks is right to decry the absence of the history of Black people in our education system. But we should ask ourselves why the Tulsa massacre and events like it are considered Black history. Racist acts and crusades perpetrated by white people are about white history — the prevalence and persistence of white racism in the United States.

For that matter, the omission of events like Tulsa from school curriculums must be understood as a manifestation of white privilege.

Carolyn Howe
Worcester, Mass.
The writer is emerita associate professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross.

To the Editor:

Tom Hanks says he learned about the Tulsa race massacre just last year, and calls for our educational system to right the wrong of silence. Let me add my own anecdote in that vein in strong support of his call: I was over 70 years old when I learned of the “lynching” of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916.

I put lynching in quotes because Washington was not merely hanged but, according to wacohistory.org: “The mob of white citizens wrapped a chain around Washington’s neck and dragged him to city hall grounds, brutally stabbing and beating him as they went along. A separate mob prepared a pile of dry-good boxes, which they ignited after they poured coal oil over Washington’s body. A crowd estimated to be between 15,000 to 20,000 people watched as the belligerents hung Washington from a tree and slowly lowered him up and down over the burning boxes.”

I am from Waco, as is my entire family on both sides. All four of my grandparents were young adults in 1916. I know stories about how they met, married, raised families, built businesses and churches. But I never heard about Jesse Washington. Were any members of my family in the crowd of 10,000? I don’t know. But I should.

J.K. Byrne
Garrettsville, Ohio

To the Editor:

While I strongly agree with Tom Hanks that history should be better told, I would not trust Hollywood or most historians, journalists or activists to do it.

Everything today — history, journalism, publishing, education, government and entertainment — is so profoundly politicized and polarized that there is no longer even a pretense of neutrality or fairness. It’s all about political and social agendas. Anyone who wants an accurate picture of anything is compelled to go to multiple sources.

History, like news reporting, should not be written with a heavy bias, but it often is. I don’t want to replace old historical inaccuracies with new ones, and I refuse to swear allegiance to historians, educators, politicians or journalists with axes to grind and social engineering agendas to enact.

Mark Godburn
Norfolk, Conn.

To the Editor:

Teaching children about Tulsa is important, but the history lessons must be placed in the context of the more than 3,000 lynchings that raged across the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The press was complicit as it reported on mob violence against Black people, such as graphically occurred in Tulsa, in abjectly biased, inflammatory ways. As journalism historians have chronicled, the press covered lynchings in a matter-of-fact manner that elided their horror, typically presuming Black people were guilty when they were not, while portraying white lynch mobs sympathetically.

We can’t bring back the victims, but we can invest their lives with meaning by teaching children, sensitively and thoughtfully, about the society in which they lived. Teachers can seize on these biased news stories and lynching in general as a pedagogical moment, using them to help students understand the nature of racial prejudice, the ways the press and society transmitted such biases, and the optimistic lesson that knowledge brings insights that help people change. This type of instruction can bring three timeless educational verities to schoolchildren: truth, understanding and compassion.

Richard M. Perloff
Cleveland
The writer is a professor of communication, psychology and political science at Cleveland State University.

To the Editor:

I am an 85-year-old former teacher of American history with a masters in American history, and I did not know about Tulsa! Shame on our teaching and cultural institutions for their failures in this regard. Hopefully we will do better now.

Lee Beckom
Santa Barbara, Calif.

To the Editor:

Bravo to Tom Hanks! As a fourth-generation Oklahoman who now lives in New Mexico, I too did not know about the Tulsa race riots until a few years ago.

In recent weeks the Oklahoma Legislature and Oklahoma’s governor decided that critical race theory should have no place in the curriculums of their students because these children might be made uncomfortable upon learning about the mistreatment of minorities. I am ashamed of many actions taken by Oklahoma political leaders in recent years, but this latest action is one of the most heinous.

Jane Godlove
Santa Fe, N.M.

To the Editor:

In 1997 a novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes titled “Magic City” was published. The novel describes in great detail the massacre in Greenwood, also called the Black Wall Street, in Tulsa. The author tells the story from the viewpoint of a fictional character.

I have learned much history from reading literature, and as a professor of literature, I am fond of telling my students that literature is the truth, disguised as fiction.

Patsy J. Daniels
Williamsport, Tenn.

To the Editor:

I find it so interesting that Tom Hanks and so many others are so surprised about Greenwood. Maybe I’m just a fan of “American Experience,” but I have known about the massacre since PBS’s segment “Goin’ Back to T-Town,” which aired in 1993. It sparked so much curiosity in me that I read about the incident and even went and toured Greenwood when I was in Tulsa in 2017.

Yet one more reason for supporting public television.

R.A. Jones
Lake Forest, Ill.