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2021 marked the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre – a horrific attack white people waged against Greenwood, a once prosperous Black neighborhood in north Tulsa, Oklahoma. Also in 2021, state legislators passed a law that limits how race is discussed in classrooms.
Tulsa activists say HB 1775 prevents descendants of those who built Greenwood from being able to acknowledge the attack, and also Greenwood’s success. In response, activist Kristi Williams rallied her community to start Black History Saturdays, where 120 Black Tulsans are using an intergenerational model to learn their history.
Featuring: Episode Credits: Music:
Show Button: Our system is, in too many ways, broken. The way we see the world shapes the way that we treat it. This is making contact.
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. This week on Making Contact, we have the final show in a three-part series, observing Black History Month. It’s about the historically Black neighborhood Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The series has covered the arc of the neighborhood – how it got established, and the incredible victories it’s achieved. All this despite calculated racist attacks. But a modern-day gag order, House Bill 1775, is undermining how kids in Oklahoma learn this history
Bracken Klar: 1775 limits, like, the way in which one can talk about the Tulsa Race Massacre. It has to be talked about in like, like a, this big misunderstanding, you know?
Amy Gastelum: Today, we’re going to talk with Kristi Williams, a Tulsa activist who is doing something about it.
Kristi Williams: And I had no idea, Amy, I was like, how can I do this? How can I make this happen?
Amy Gastelum: Stay with us.
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. Last week, we sat down with Tulsa based journalist Carlos Moreno and Co-producer of the radio show Focus: Black Oklahoma, Bracken Klar. If you haven’t listened to the previous two episodes in this special three-part series, now’s your chance to catch up. You can go to your favorite podcast platform, or go to our website, radioproject.org to listen back.
So far in the series, we’ve covered the establishment of the North Tulsa neighborhood, Greenwood, in the early 1900s by a Black couple, Emma and Ottawa Gurley. The neighborhood flourished until 1921, when a group of white people attacked it, burning buildings and killing residents. This is known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. But since Black folks owned the land, they built back. And the height of Greenwood’s prosperity was actually in the 1940s. But it wouldn’t last. The federal government’s urban renewal project gave money to cities to buy up so called “slums.” All over the country, cities aggressively targeted buyouts of communities of color. That’s what happened to Greenwood. And now, most of the neighborhood is owned by the city. There is an enclave of residents pulling from the rich history of the area and proudly building from those historic roots, but progress that’s being made for Black folks in Tulsa has been hobbled by a 2021 state law that limits the discussion of race in classrooms, House Bill 1775. Here’s Bracken Klar.
Bracken Klar: 1775 limits, like, the way in which one can talk about the Tulsa Race Massacre. It can’t be framed as like an organized white enclave attacking a historically Black part of town. It has to be talked about in like, this big misunderstanding. Like, uh, you can’t talk about the reality race played in the destruction of Greenwood. Oh, or in the, in the, in the building and the success of Greenwood,
Amy Gastelum: Because of Jim Crow segregation laws, Black residents of Tulsa couldn’t spend their dollars outside of Greenwood. But business owners in Greenwood didn’t enforce Jim Crow, so they had all the business from Black residents and sometimes from white residents.
Bracken Klar: But you can’t sort of talk about that, uh, with 1775, so it, it only allows the telling of like a very, pardon my, my juvenile pun, it sort of whitewashes the whole thing. And like there are people in, in the schools, both teachers, administrators, students, um, who are direct descendants, who have family that lived through this, and they they can’t talk about their stories, um, lest someone be made uncomfortable.
Amy Gastelum: Here’s Carlos Moreno.
Carlos Moreno: And the people who might be made uncomfortable, are the very streets and neighborhoods that we drive through and on every day.
Amy Gastelum: Carlos said victims who filed insurance claims after the massacre also named defendants in the lawsuits.
Carlos Moreno: And these are names like Crutchfield, Whiteside, Newblock, McCullough. Like these families are still around. So not only do you have descendants of the victims of ‘21, but you have descendants of people who brought two branches of the National Guard into Tulsa, organized, prepared airplanes to bomb this neighborhood, which took an incredible amount of coordination and planning. Their names are being kept out of this story, I think for reasons that would, that would make those families and make families who are still in power in Tulsa uncomfortable about their history. It’s a conversation that we haven’t had yet in Tulsa.
Amy Gastelum: And Carlos says House Bill 1775 makes it more difficult to do so.
Carlos Moreno: Like there, there would have been an opportunity to speak with, the Whitesides and the Crutchfields and the Newblocks and the Brady’s and the Joneses, about how they feel about being descendants of people who attacked this place.
Bracken Klar: The Bynums, the, Lafortunes.
Carlos Moreno: And we’re not providing the opportunity to have this cross-cultural dialogue that Tulsa so desperately needs. And I strongly believe that any sort of healing can’t happen until we talk about that.
Amy Gastelum: When Tulsa activist Kristi Williams heard about House Bill 1775, she felt called to do something about it. So, she made a Saturday school where people could sign up to learn about Black history. We caught up with her a few weeks ago to learn more about the program.
Amy Gastelum: Hi, so nice to meet you. I’m just going to hit record.
Ms. Kristi is the great great granddaughter of Jesse Franklin, a man enslaved by the Creek Nation, who traveled with them on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. When he was emancipated in 1866, he became a member of the Creek Nation, becoming what’s known as a Freedman. She’s also the descendant of Cherokee citizens, and her great aunt survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
She’s a community organizer whose expertise on Greenwood has been recognized by documentary makers from CNN to National Geographic. And she’s the founder of Black History Saturdays. With this program, Ms. Kristi hopes to maintain an honest and comprehensive understanding of Oklahoma’s Black history. I asked her to tell me about the bill that’s trying to bury that history.
Kristi Williams: So House Bill 1775 basically just puts a lot of restrictions on how Black history can be taught in the public school systems. Um, and it’s very vague and broad at the same time, um, which is why a lot of educators just won’t touch it. So you’ll hear, like Ryan Walters saying, we never banned Black history.
Amy Gastelum: Ryan Walters is the Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction. And Ms. Williams is right. Walters and others who support the bill have argued that the law doesn’t limit teaching Black history. But what it does say introduces some concepts that make it almost impossible to talk about race in America. It bans discussing the idea of unconscious bias, for example, and it makes teachers accountable for children’s feelings, their feelings, on account of his or her race.
Kristi Williams: And the sad part about it is that this is what Black children have been doing the entire time in public schools. They have been, um, feeling that way in the psychological damage of not seeing yourself represented in history, but also limiting your history to slavery. When you think that you’re just a product of slavery, what that does to you psychologically, it is, it is horrible and it harms the growth of our, of our young folks. And sadly, today we have adults who went through that, right? And who are raising children going through the same thing. And to not even be able to identify that that has even happened to you.
Amy Gastelum: Holding teachers accountable for their students’ emotions has led to self-censorship for fear of losing their jobs. Any parent can file a complaint using this law, and they have.
Kristi Williams: Suggesting a book or, you know, speaking about Black history and someone taking that and saying my child felt uncomfortable and then there you have it because teachers have been fired, in different counties throughout Oklahoma already because of that. So no one is wanting to touch it. So that’s basically how I kind of sum up the House Bill 1775.
Amy Gastelum: The American Civil Liberties Union, along with several Oklahoma educator groups, sued the state right away after it was passed. They argue House Bill 1775 violates First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. They’ve repeatedly asked for an injunction which would stop the law from being enacted. The injunction has not been granted, but the lawsuit is ongoing. The judge in the case heard opening arguments late last year.
Amy Gastelum: Everybody I’ve talked to about it talks about, um, the way that the massacre just wasn’t talked about among the people who, suffered as victims, it was really pushed under the rug type of thing. And so, You know, 2021 comes around, we’re at the centennial, more people are starting to talk about it. We’re starting to tell the real story of what had happened. And then House Bill 1775 comes along. Yeah.
Kristi Williams: Absolutely. And being a descendant of the Race Massacre, um, you know, I’ve always, I’ve always known about it. I just didn’t know that’s what it was called. You know, my Aunt Janie, I was blessed to be able, you know, to meet her before she passed and had those conversations where she would tell us about it. But I wish I knew then to ask questions, um, because I was young, but she called it that time when white people were killing Black people in Tulsa. I mean, we thought she was absolutely crazy, but she was absolutely right. And today I’m finding more of the things she said is true. It happened. A lot of those stories should be documented in our history books. Um, but it’s just not. And, uh, we, we need to be teaching that.
Amy Gastelum: Why do you think that this bill was written?
Kristi Williams: You know, I really do believe that the bill was written because this time in our country, we’ve seen, um, our youth come together, white, Black. And the youth has the ability to change this power structure. And I think the fear of that is what made this happen, because imagine being in a world where white children are learning true Black history. It really makes us human, right? It makes us human. And knowing that comes a great, a greater respect. And then also looking at what this country has done wrong to Black people. A lot of the white young people will want to correct that, growing up and making their career paths or whatever. And so I think the fear of that, um, really is, is what makes someone create a bill like that. Because it’s also understanding the power of education. This was a play from Hitler’s textbook. Hitler did this. The Holocaust just didn’t happen. It was planned. And, and that was one of the things that he did, is this disrupting education and what’s being taught. You can control the masses by what they’re being taught.
Amy Gastelum: So, so what do you think has been the response to this bill? I mean, you’re there in Oklahoma, you’re an educator. What has been the response from educators, from teachers, from, um, parents, from children?
Kristi Williams: From what I have heard about traditional teachers, um, which I have some who teach at Black History Saturdays, they’re really upset about it. They are really, um, hurt that they can’t teach it, And they’re afraid.
I mean, it’s really a sad thing because now they’re really afraid of what they’re learning, what they’re teaching. Then also another piece to that is parents. lot of parents are just going with the flow because that’s all they know to do. But then you also have parents who are learning through conversations like this, like, wow, this is really happening.
Um, and then so you get a lot of, uh, parents who want to do something about it, which a lot of parents are sending their kids to Black History Saturdays, and they’re there too.
Lucy Kang: You’re listening to Making Contact. Just jumping in here to remind you to visit us online if you like today’s show or want to leave us a comment. We have more information at radioproject.org. And now, back to the show.
Amy Gastelum: Welcome back to the show. I’m Amy Gastelum. Tulsa activist and founder of Black History Saturdays, Kristi Williams told me that she’s loved learning Black history a long time. It started when she was in 11th grade at Memorial High School in Tulsa. She had a teacher named Mr. Roundtree.
Kristi Williams: I had taken a Greek history class with him and I loved that class, and I loved the way he taught. But I noticed when he taught us Black history, he would light up when he taught it and he, it was important for him that we learned it. You could tell it was like you know, it was like something pulling something out of this beautiful box and it was, you know, a treasure and that’s how he treated it. But after his class, it mattered to me how I held my head when I entered the room. It mattered to me what my presence meant. And I want everyone to have that experience. So I always had that in the back of my mind and I wanted to create a space for, um, for families to have that. And I just didn’t know how, right? I just knew it was there. And then when this house bill came about, I knew it was just like, Kristi, you have to make this happen. And I had no idea, Amy, I was like, how can I do this? Cause it was such a big vision, right? And how can I make this happen?
Amy Gastelum: Well, Miss Kristi is connected. She started asking teachers she knew if they would work with her.
Kristi Williams: And they were like, Kristi, that’s a great idea, but you know, I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t want to risk losing my job. I don’t want to risk losing my teaching certification. And I got it. And then I started to get really like depressed because I was like, okay, this thing is not going to happen because I can’t even get anybody. But one day, literally, I was watching TV. I was watching the Golden Girls, believe it or not,
Amy Gastelum: I believe it.
Kristi Williams: and I got a phone call and She said, are you, are you still looking for teachers? I heard you’re looking for teachers to do this Black History Saturday school, and I said yes, and so she said, I’ll do it. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, okay, I got one. And she said, and I know others.
Amy Gastelum: Ms. Kristi called her old friends, Endya Carr and Michael Carter. Both were elementary school principals.
Kristi Williams: I mean, they’ve been good friends of mine and they are amazing at what they do. And, um, I thought, gosh, I got to get them together. So I told them this and they were like, okay, then they started to reach out to people who they knew who would, would love to do this.
Amy Gastelum: Endya and Michael are part of the team who developed the curriculum and now implement it. We’ll get to the curriculum in a minute. But first, I want you to hear how Ms. Kristi secured the building. Ms. Kristi has a lot of friends.
Kristi Williams: So, um, a friend of mine, Charles Harper, has this facility called EduRec, education plus recreation. So he said, Kristi, just come use this space. It’s private property and you can do Black History Saturdays here. And it worked. Everything just started coming together.
Amy Gastelum: The seed money came from a documentary program through National Geographic where Miss Kristi is a lead storyteller.
Kristi Williams: Pastors came together, gave me more money. Um, so I was just like, I was like begging because you want it to be free to participants. So you got to keep it going. So yeah, I think it was just intention, manifestation, um, and God and my ancestors.
Amy Gastelum: This month, the group is celebrating their first full year in operation. Here’s how it works. On the first Saturday of every month, 120 people, kids and adults, gather for breakfast at EduRec. Then, they break into small groups based on their age. They all learn lessons in Black history and then the families come back together for lunch.
Kristi Williams: It’s, it’s beautiful just to see the whole family there and the way we designed the curriculum was past, present, future, and so we started with Africa and then, you know, the present, and the future is beyond Juneteenth. But what I love about it is that that framework and that curriculum is the same for everybody, they’re just learning it on different levels. And so, my goal was so that family in the car going to the grocery store and, you know, mom or dad can say, what did you learn today? And everybody’s on Africa. So now everyone is learning different things from what everyone has learned at the different age groups.
Amy Gastelum: Within that framework of past, present, and future, topics can depend on a teacher’s area of expertise. They range from politics to poetry. They even had a professor of anthropology zoom in for lessons. This year, the group is adding piano to the mix.
Kristi Williams: And then I have a, a chef because I wanted the food to also be a history lesson. So I wanted the chef to, to prepare meals from around the globe of Black people. And so they’ve done that. We’ve had dishes from the Caribbean, Africa, you know, other soul food, all kinds of, you know, things. I wanted them to also have that history lesson with food. But that’s how it all came about, Amy. It just, everything just started coming together, like even finding this chef and, It just literally started falling in my lap and it was just a matter of just piecing it all together.
Amy Gastelum: When she started the program, Ms. Kristi thought most attendees would be kids, and she was worried about drop-offs and pick-ups – how to get the kids connected to the right adults.
Kristi Williams: As you know, as, as, as a mother of young kids, the pickup and drop off thing at schools are like…
Amy Gastelum: It’s intense.
Kristi Williams: Yes, it’s intense.
It gives me anxiety. But, um, luckily I had no drop offs. They all stay,
Amy Gastelum: Wow.
Kristi Williams: The whole family stays. So
Amy Gastelum: Yeah. So, who, like, when you talk about you had to limit it to 120 people, are you turning people away? I mean, are you having to turn people, wow.
Kristi Williams: Yes, I had to because the budget that I had for was just, you know, 120 people and then getting the teachers because I pay my teachers. I didn’t want them to do this for free. So I paid my teachers a monthly stipend. I have more space to have more people, just the funding is what you need more of to, to, to have more people. And one of the things too, Amy, like I didn’t want, like, you know, this was my first year. I didn’t want to just do it in a month. I started it Black History Month, but Black History is 365 days a year. But I wanted to not, you know, like once people complete it, I don’t want to let them go. I want them to advance to another level. So I’m still also figuring that out, like how do I still keep you here? Because there’s still so much to learn.
Amy Gastelum: That was part of my question too, is like, what’s the plan for the life of the project? Like what’s your vision? If you had to like, come up with like, okay, this is my dream, like really what I want. Do you have that like identified yet or are you still kind of like going with the flow and seeing what happens?
Kristi Williams: Well, I have, uh, what I would like to do is start Black History Saturday chapters across the country and so I would love to come in and show people how I did it, how to do it, how to keep it going. And even though this is my first year, um, I’ve had people reach out to me. I’ve had people from Florida, uh, Texas, Kansas City, Arkansas, Houston, those people to reach out. And so it’s a great thing and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I did the work on the model.
So let’s just…
Amy Gastelum: You’re willing to share the model?
Kristi Williams: Yes.
Amy Gastelum: Okay.
Kristi Williams: Let’s do this. Because we have to. We have to make this happen. Um, it’s so important that we, we, we do it.
Amy Gastelum: So if our listeners reach out to you, like you’d be willing to share like your curriculum and your model and that kind of thing, is that right?
Kristi Williams: Yes. So I am, I am going to be working with people on that too. And you know, some people are like, you’ve got to sell it and maybe I’ll get to a point to where I can, because this is something, you know, that I want to do, but it’s so important for, um, for our country. It really is.
Amy Gastelum: Mm hmm. Yeah, because Oklahoma is not the only state dealing with laws like this around education. You mentioned Florida, you mentioned Texas, we know that there are bills trying to limit education.
Kristi Williams: Even in states where they don’t have a House Bill 1775, I mean, they still limit Black history to February. So there is still, we need more of that. You know, really do. We need more intention to Black history, you know, being taught to Black people.
Amy Gastelum: Ms. Kristi believes it’s important for folks who aren’t Black to learn Black history, but Black History Saturdays is a space for Black people to learn their history among themselves.
Kristi Williams: Because there’s an unlearning that has to take place to relearn it. And it’s almost like a spiritual ritual. I mean, it really is. And so it, it takes that because. You’re dealing with oppressed people. And so, there’s a way that you have to, to, to reach them. And, and the space has to be sacred. Mm
Amy Gastelum: Um, I’m going to go down that road a little bit and just say like, uh, my background is as a nurse, a public health nurse for many years. And, uh, you know, so I’ve been like taught about, you know, trauma, and how we talk about trauma and how we deal cope with trauma and how we heal from trauma. And I think, I don’t remember where I learned this, but it was something about like, a lot of, like, a lot of times trauma comes from interactions with other human beings, but, like, healing from trauma also comes from interactions with other human beings, you know?
Kristi Williams: hmm. Mm hmm. Yes. Yes. So true. So true.
You know, there’s a few people who cry every time. Um, cause at the end of Black History Saturdays, we meet back in the cafeteria and we’ll get like two people from each class to share out what they learned. And, um, you know, you get some people who actually cry because they’ve never, and it’s usually adults. They never sat in a space um, to really learn about their history.
I have more adults than children. I have about 58, it was like 58 adults, and it, that, that struck me because there’s so many adults who want to learn about who they are. And it just dawned on me, there’s so many of us running around here who don’t know who we are, where we come from.
Amy Gastelum: Mm hmm.
Kristi Williams: And so that, that struck me cause I just knew I was just going to be full of kids, but no, so that got me.
Amy Gastelum: Ms. Kristi is delighted about the adult turnout, but her focus is still on the kids. She said it’s been cool to see them light up, even if the timing isn’t their favorite.
Kristi Williams: This was a Saturday morning. It’s a Saturday morning.They don’t want to get up. And so I can see it on their faces. The first day we had it. Uh, but now they’re like, wow, I’ve learned so much. And now they’re wondering why, why can’t we learn this in school? So they’re asking these questions and challenging. And, you know, and they’re getting a deeper understanding of history. And they’ve expressed that even like the high school, I have some high school students and they’re like, now when I learned history at school, I understand some things deeper than what we’re learning, um, and they see the gaps, you know, and so that’s important. They’re identifying the gaps, um, and that’s what we want them to do, you know, um, because it’s going to be them that’s going to change this.
Amy Gastelum: You have a lot of faith in the youth.
Kristi Williams: I do. I do. I do. Um, and I can’t remember who said it. I think it’s Frederick Douglass… Oh this is bad because I started Black History Saturdays.
Amy Gastelum: That’s, okay!
Kristi Williams: It’s, it’s, yeah, where he said it’s, it’s, it’s hard to change, um, it’s hard to change men, broken men, but you have to start with the youth. And so, um, I think that’s, that’s important to do that. And, and it’s important to do it together as families. And I think that’s where the strength comes from.
Amy Gastelum: Since I have the benefit of post-production, I can confirm it was Frederick Douglass who said, “it is easier to build strong children than fix broken men.”
Amy Gastelum: For our listeners who might want to do something similar in their own communities, like, what resources would you suggest that they look into? And what advice would you give them?
Kristi Williams: You know, for people who want to start it, I would definitely say, reach out to me. Um, I’m putting some things together You can do this. But I will say, dream big, go big.
Amy Gastelum: If you’re interested in learning more about Black History Saturdays or to donate to the project, go to our website, radioproject.org, where we have a link to the site in the show notes.
Amy Gastelum: Well, thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything else that you think I should know before we go?
Kristi Williams: Thank you so much, Amy, for doing this story. Um, and for, for wanting to do this story because I always tell people now, now we have teachers on the front lines. Um, and I’ve been calling them activists and they’re right because they are. Um, but you also have journalists choosing the right stories to put out where most people wouldn’t even take a chance on, but you’re doing that, this work. And so, I don’t think people meet just because. So, I am grateful to meet you on this journey and to help carry this work further. Um, and that’s what journalists do. They’re carriers. And so, thank you for choosing to carry this.
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum, you’re listening to Making Contact. This has been the last episode in a three-part series exploring the history of Greenwood, Oklahoma. To listen to all the episodes, go to our website, RadioProject.org. There you’ll find links to Black History Saturdays and the Tri City Collective in the show notes. Until next week.