Have you heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre? If you haven't, author Carole Boston Weatherford's 2021 award-winning picture book is a perfect introduction. The book is called Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, and it is the heart wrenching story of how a prosperous black community -- Black Wall Street -- was completely destroyed and its citizens chased out of town while the police stood by and did, well... nothing.
The book opens to the origin of The Black Wall Street, during a time when prospectors struck it rich in the oil fields. When the new wealth created jobs, a community called Greenwood sprang up. Comprised of formerly enslaved people, Black Indians, etc., this community was one of staggering wealth and resources. It had restaurants, grocery stores, furriers, and pool halls. It had libraries, a hospital, a post office, and a school system (separate from the white school system, of course) where black children reportedly got a better education than whites. It had beauty shops, hotels, movie theaters and confectioneries. It also had two newspapers, fifteen black doctors, and stunning homes that belonged to prominent doctors, lawyers and businessmen. It had all these things and more... and they were all black-owned.
This superior, self-supporting community was a sight to behold. The problem was that those who beheld it were jealous of it. All the white community of Tulsa needed was a convenient "insult" as an excuse to release their wrath. They soon found the perfect insult: a black shoe-shine person supposedly attacked a white person. The white community sprang into action to nab the culprit and give him their own special brand of punishment. The black Tulsa community rushed, armed, to the man's assistance -- which further enraged the white community. Before long, whites were looting, burning, shooting and destroying whatever they could get their hands on. Unfortunately, law enforcement did not come to the people of Greenwood's aide; in some instances, they deputized the white men who attacked the community.
When it was over, businesses were gutted, buildings were demolished, and Greenwood was only a pile of ashes. Over three hundred blacks had been murdered.
Reading The Tulsa Race Massacre is an experience. From the inner sleeve to the end pages to the precious content and illustrations inside, this book is a feast for the eyes, the mind, and the soul. The stories of black wealth, black self-sufficiency, and black pride are the stuff of legends. But recounting the destruction, looting and murder -- all because this black community was doing well and proving that blacks could thrive AND excel, is the stuff of nightmares.
Carole Boston Weatherford's prose is rich and warm in some places, fast-paced and full of danger in others. In every instance, her ability to tell a good story comes across loud and strong, and she holds the reader's interest to the very last page. The late mega-talented artist, Floyd Cooper, offers astonishingly beautiful images of pride, joy, success, fear and stark despair. His colors are the rich caramel and deep browns of the African American community, and his illustrations capture every range of emotion a reader can expect to encounter.
Use this book to open discussions about racial history, prejudice, oppression, citizenship, ownership and civil rights.