Today, the Greenwood district of downtown Tulsa resembles nothing of its former self. Many Tulsans would be surprised to learn that when they go to see a Drillers game or stop by Fat Guy’s for a burger, they are actually in an area once known as “the Black Wall Street.” In the early 20th century, Greenwood was home to many thriving businesses run by black Tulsans. African-American doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and other professionals, several of whom were multi-millionaires, lived and worked in the region.
In the spring of 1921, Greenwood was burned to the ground by a white mob in response to an accusation that a black shoe shiner assaulted a young white woman in an elevator. Although the number of deaths is unknown, it has been estimated that as many as 300 Greenwood residents lost their lives, while thousands more were left injured or without homes. This event is commonly known as the “Tulsa Race Riot,” though it could be more accurately described as a massacre. Many TU students know nothing about this tragic event, even though it occurred a mere three miles from campus. It is surprising that a university located at the heart of a city with such a powerful racial history offers no program in African-American Studies.
TU remains a predominantly white institution in a diverse city. Though there is no shortage of international diversity, there are surprisingly few domestic students and faculty members of color on campus. It seems like TU is not making much of an effort to change this.
Though it likely would not shift TU’s demographics too dramatically, the addition of an African-American studies program would show that the university values black narratives and experiences. It would give students the opportunity to study and discuss the U.S.’s (particularly Tulsa’s) important racial history and its modern implications.
Block classes in African-American literature, music, film and art would provide students with a more diverse range of perspectives and counternarratives. Not only could such a program potentially attract more students of color, but it could also expose white and international students to unfamiliar histories and new ways of thinking.
In the wake of the SAE scandal, all academic institutions in Oklahoma should be striving to promote more open dialogue and understanding about race. Adding courses in African-American studies would be an excellent way for TU to do just that.