Children’s Books Commemorate 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

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With 2021 marking the centenary of the May 31, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a number of books are being released this year to commemorate what is regarded by many as one of the darkest events in American history, when white vigilantes torched a prosperous Black community in Tulsa, Okla. The offerings include five books for children, ranging from a picture book for the youngest readers to a wide selection for older readers, including graphic nonfiction, two historical narratives, and a YA novel.

While historians estimate that up to 300 Black people were murdered in Tulsa, Okla., on that Memorial Day weekend 100 years ago, and approximately 10,000 left homeless, relatively few Americans knew of the incident until it was depicted in two HBO series: The Watchmen in 2019 and Lovecraft Country in 2020. Not many accounts about it have been published for adult readers, and even fewer for children: Anna Myers wrote about it in a 2002 middle grade novel, Tulsa Burning (Walker & Co.).

The first book published this year inspired by the Tulsa Race Massacre was released in January: Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink (Feiwel and Friends). Earlier this year, Pink told PW that she learned of the massacre only two years ago and was inspired to write about it because of the redlining that is still prevalent to this day in cities across the U.S. Feiwel and Friends associate publisher Liz Szabla recalled that when Pink proposed a YA novel set during the massacre, she “braced” herself. “What I didn’t expect alongside the intense tragedy was a love story,” she said, “a book about young love and about the love of a place. Randi Pink felt that love so strongly that she included a chapter narrated by the town of Greenwood itself; it is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve ever read.”

As for the challenges of publishing a book for teen readers depicting the slaughter of 300 Black people, associate editor Foyinsi Adegbonmire maintains that young readers can handle learning about racial violence, explaining that while one might feel that one should wait until children are mature enough to discuss certain subjects, “the younger they are the easier it is for them to learn, usually because they aren’t as stuck in their ways.”

Also, she added, “There are children who don’t have the luxury of just learning about traumatic incidents because they’ve lived or are living them. There were children who lived in Greenwood during the massacre. When their neighborhood was under attack, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they’re too young to go through this.’ When you work on children’s books, especially books like this, you have to find a way to not overwhelm young readers while also not downplaying the horrors of a particular incident. It’s a constant balancing act and Randi found a way to do it.”

In February, Lerner Publishing Group issued a picture book under its Carolrhoda Books imprint, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper—a native Oklahoman whose grandfather was an eyewitness to the massacre.

Like Adegbonmire, Weatherford believes that “it’s never too early to raise an anti-racist.” She wrote the first draft of Unspeakable while attending the 2018 National Council of Teachers of English conference, and pitched it to Carolrhoda associate editor Carol Hinz over breakfast one morning.

Two key challenges in producing a picture book on such a topic, Hinz explained, are deciding how much to tell readers in the text and how much to show in the illustrations. “What makes this book work is the fact that it is not solely a book about the massacre,” she said. “It’s also a testament to the glory of the Greenwood that once was. Carole spends the first half of the book recreating Greenwood prior to the massacre.” In writing about the violence that took place, Hinz added, Weatherford “is honest with readers about what happened but doesn’t linger over it.” And Cooper’s sepia-toned illustrations “brilliantly highlight faces and emotions, letting us feel what happened while keeping the violence at a distance.”

Another challenge, Hinz noted, was how to conclude a picture book about an event that simply does not have a happy ending. “You need to be able to offer readers a bit of hope,” she said, noting that Unspeakable winds up in the present, with a scene of Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which memorializes the massacre.

The young readers edition of The Burning: Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Masacre of 1921, adapted by Hilary Beard from Tim Madigan’s 2001 account for adult readers (Holt, May), came into being because Henry Holt Books for Young Readers senior editor Kate Farrell viewed The Watchmen with her teenage son.

“The opening scenes depicting the Tulsa massacre were so brutal,” she recalled. “My son asked me, ‘Is this real history? This really happened?’ I told him I would find out, there must be a book we can read about it.” Upon reading The Burning, Farrell said that she realized she did not understand the history of racism in the U.S., “and I had grown up in a system that wanted it that way. I thought maybe if we could adapt this book for younger readers, and find the right person to do the adapting, we’d have done something good.”

Farrell acknowledged that she “worried over every detail of the violence and brutality, and thought about the impact that each word—and certain words in particular—might have on a young reader.” She praised the adaptation, saying that Beard “gets to the heart of the matter” in her introduction, when she writes: “The fact that something is upsetting to us doesn’t mean that we should not engage it. Facing the truth empowers us to understand ourselves, our neighbors, and our world more accurately; to make appropriate choices and decisions; to heal our past and present and build a more promising future. Together.”

Another May release targeting teen readers, Across the Tracks: Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre and Black Wall Street written by Alverne Ball and illustrated by Stacey Robinson (Abrams ComicArts), is being published in a graphic nonfiction format. The book was conceived last year, Megascope curator John Jennings told PW, when he and ComicArts founder Charles Kochman were engaged in conversation about “the many diverse issues that have been negatively affecting American society.” After Jennings noted that the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Masscare had just passed, Kochman suggested publishing a primer in graphic format to educate readers, while also celebrating the accomplishments of Greenwood’s residents. “We started putting together a proposal for a book that could come out before the centennial of the massacre,” Jennings recalled.

While the greatest challenge for the publisher was confronting an extraordinarily tight production schedule, another major obstacle proved to be the dearth of either primary or secondary sources about the massacre.

Jennings also disclosed that another challenge was putting together “the right creative team who would be sensitive to the content and have enough expertise and acumen as storytellers to get across the narrative without it focusing on the death and destruction.” The goal was to “make a hopeful book about the event, a book that was educational but uplifting in spite of all the systemic issues that still plague Black American citizens to this day.”

Another children’s book commemorating the massacre will be released this fall: Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert (HarperCollins/Balzer +Bray, Oct.) is a nonfiction narrative by an author better known for writing fiction than nonfiction.

Colbert explained that she wrote Black Birds because, although she grew up in southwest Missouri, “just three hours from Tulsa,” she didn’t know about the massacre until fairly recently.

After learning about it, Colbert told PW, “I started thinking about all the vital history—particularly Black American history—that’s been intentionally erased from American textbooks, and I knew I wanted to write a nonfiction book for young readers about the massacre and all the factors that contributed to it.” Even though she found it “emotionally difficult” to research and write about such a traumatic incident—“especially since the issues of the past are so clearly tied to the issues we’re still dealing with today”—she also experienced “such joy and pride” writing about Greenwood and about the Black Tulsans who defended it against the marauders.

Like Colbert, Balzer + Bray executive editor Jordan Brown learned of the Tulsa Race Massacre as an adult. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t learned about it in any high school history class, he said, but “its story and erasure paint a much more damning and complex portrait of the history of race in our country than what I was taught as a teenager.” Black Birds “felt like a vital subject for nonfiction aimed at readers whose ideas about our country are still being formed,” he added. “When the proposal for this book arrived in my inbox, we couldn’t sign it fast enough.”

One of the most intriguing challenges in producing such a book, Brown added, was that the consensus history students typically are taught in school had to be completely flipped to more accurately represent the events leading up to the massacre.

By placing BIPOC people at the center of the narrative, Brown noted, “the history of Oklahoma’s statehood becomes a story about the injustice of land runs and the genocide and forced displacement of Native Americans. The history of the press in the early 20th century becomes a story about Black-owned newspapers and the counterpoint they provided to mainstream media coverage that often supported white supremacist groups and ideas.”

Brown maintains that an accurate history of the Tulsa Race Massacre “required a voice and an eye typically absent from this type of nonfiction.” Fortunately for those readers who want to know what really happened that weekend, he added, Colbert is “a writer more than capable of bringing a sure journalistic hand to the book while consistently reconfiguring whose perspectives and experiences are centered in discussions of history.”

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Jewell Parker Rhodes's 1997 novel, Magic City, which is a novel for adult readers.

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