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About the Author
A once-thriving Black community was destroyed, and the story of how it happened went untold for decades.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was emerging as a thriving oil town, and African Americans worked to establish communities in the face of discrimination. The separate neighborhoods that grew out of segregation meant that Black businesses sprang up to serve those who could not frequent White establishments. The African American neighborhood of Greenwood had so many it became known as 'Black Wall Street, ' with an impressive range of services and opportunities. The tenuous nature of Black prosperity was reinforced, however, when a White woman accused a Black man of assault. White mobs, unable to reach the suspect, descended on Greenwood, looting the businesses and burning the community to the ground. With no protection or assistance from law enforcement, all that the residents had achieved was lost. Further, it took 75 years before an official investigation was launched. Author Weatherford and illustrator Cooper join forces to present this important story with sensitivity and care for younger readers. Weatherford's measured prose depicts the events in a cleareyed, age-appropriate narrative. Oklahoma native Cooper's muted palette and oil-erasure style effectively portray first the achievement and then the devastation that followed. The author's and illustrator's notes provide valuable insight and context, as does the rear endpapers' photograph of the massacre's aftermath.
A somber, well-executed addition to the history as the incident approaches its 100th anniversary.--starred, Kirkus Reviews
The city of Tulsa, Okla., unleashed hell on earth 100 years ago this month when it deputized part of the mob that looted and burned the prosperous African-American community of Greenwood. When the carnage subsided, perhaps as many as 300 Tulsans lay dead. Thirty-five square blocks of homes, churches and schools--along with a storied business district known as Black Wall Street--had been systematically torched and reduced to ash.
By creating 'Opal's Greenwood Oasis' and 'Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre' for young people, the authors of two new picture books have reminded us that many who survived the fiery conflagration of 1921 were children at the time.
Kinney Booker was 8. Seventy-five years later, he recalled hiding in the attic while white vigilantes marched his father away at gunpoint and set the house ablaze. As Kinney and his siblings fled through streets where even utility poles were burning, his terrified younger sister asked, 'Kinney, is the world on fire?' He responded, 'I don't think so, but we are in deep trouble.' Elsewhere in Greenwood, 6-year-old Olivia Hooker heard what she presumed to be hailstones but soon learned was gunfire. After driving the Hookers from their home, white marauders stripped it of valuables, destroying what they could not carry away. Elwood Lett was 41/2. His family nearly escaped in his grandfather's wagon but ran afoul of a white man who used the n-word and shot Elwood's grandfather dead. 'My mother let out a scream, ' he recalled in the 1990s: ''Oh, you have killed my father, you've killed him, ' and I thought he was going to do the same thing to my mother.'
African-Americans came to what is now Oklahoma in the first half of the 19th century on the Trail of Tears -- as property of slaveholding Native Americans -- and later as Exodusters, named for the exodus of African-Americans from the white supremacist South. Yet Americans raised with the Hollywood version of history are often surprised to learn that there was a significant Black presence on the frontier and that Greenwood was a mecca of economic power commanded by a Black elite including doctors, lawyers, hoteliers, real estate developers and newspaper editors.
These sensitively written, beautifully illustrated books restore this often-elided history while explaining the ensuing tragedy in a manner appropriate for children. Both books lovingly depict the striving, close-knit Greenwood enclave as it appeared on the eve of its destruction.
The authors of 'Opal's Greenwood Oasis, ' Najah-Amatullah Hylton and Quraysh Ali Lansana, are both poets and teachers with deep connections to Oklahoma and Tulsa. Skip Hill's emotionally resonant, collage-style illustrations show the influence of the artist Romare Bearden.
The book introduces Opal Brown, a delightful young girl in pigtails who is brimming with pride because she has just learned to ride a bicycle. Sitting on the bike, with the classic wicker errand basket attached to the handlebars, Opal announces she has 'just finished third grade' in Greenwood in 1921. Describing her beloved community, she says: 'In Greenwood, we have everything we need, and it might surprise you to know that everyone looks like me.' As she cycles off on an errand for her mother -- her first ride alone -- Opal gives us an overview of Greenwood. Black families are preparing food and setting out tables for the annual Memorial Day picnic. The joyous celebration is heartbreaking for adult readers who know of the cataclysm gathering offstage.
In 'Unspeakable, ' the acclaimed children's author Carole Boston Weatherford continues the exploration of African-American history that has earned her three Caldecott Honors, including one for 'Moses: When Harriett Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, ' and a Newbery Honor for 'Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom.' Her forebears lived through the period of white supremacist terrorism of which Tulsa was but one example.
The award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper was born and raised in Tulsa, where none of his teachers ever mentioned the massacre. He learned of it at a grandfather's knee.
Weatherford deals directly with the racist tenets of segregation. She explains that the railroad tracks separating the white city from the Black were emblematic of laws that forbade marriages across racial lines and that called for 'separate neighborhoods, schools, phone booths, and railroad and streetcar coaches.'
Like 'Opal's Greenwood Oasis, ' 'Unspeakable' celebrates the flourishing world that Greenwood had built behind the Jim Crow curtain. Weatherford describes the enclave's all-Black school system as a place 'where some say Black children got a better education than whites' and portrays the Black business strip as a promenade where men and women who worked menial jobs in the white city strolled in their finest, seeing and being seen: 'Miss Mabel's Little Rose Beauty Salon boomed on Thursdays when maids who worked for white families got coiffed on their day off and strutted in style up and down Greenwood Avenue. The soda fountain at Williams Confectionary was the backdrop for scores of marriage proposals.'
Some of the people who built Black Wall Street were examples of what white supremacists called 'bad Negroes.' They declined to bow and scrape, and defended their rights with pistols if necessary. This made the Black city within the city anathema to white Tulsans who viewed Black affluence as an affront, and 'proof that African-Americans could achieve just as much, if not more than, whites.'
Race hatred found an opening when a young Black man who shined shoes in the white downtown was falsely accused of assaulting a young white woman who worked as an elevator operator. White men who hoped to see the Black man hanged clashed with Black men who arrived to prevent a lynching. The powers-that-be used this episode as an excuse to raze Greenwood to the ground.--New York Times Book Review
One hundred years ago, the Greenwood district of Tulsa, OK, was a prosperous Black community. Restaurants, beauty salons, movie theaters, and dozens of other businesses thrived along 'Black Wall Street.' Cooper's sepia-tone illustrations depict the bustle of everyday life as people hurried to shops or churches and gathered with friends. A stark spread signals the tragic turning point that resulted in the decimation of Greenwood's Black community. A 17-year-old white woman elevator operator accused a 19-year-old Black man of assault. Incited by calls to action printed in white-owned newspapers, thousands of armed white men headed to the jail, where they met 30 armed Black men determined to stop a lynching. The confrontation resulted in the deaths of two Black men and 10 white men. Angry that they didn't get to the jailed Black man, a white mob invaded the town, looted, and committed arson. The police did nothing to protect the Black citizens. Up to 300 Greenwood residents were killed, and more than 8,000 were left homeless. Seventy-five years passed before an official investigation occurred. Cooper's illustrations are infused with a personal connection. Not only did he grow up in Tulsa, but Cooper also heard his grandpa's stories of surviving the events. The powerful photo spread on the endpapers documents the destruction and smoking ruins. Cooper's final illustrations of Tulsa's Reconciliation Park offer a bit of hope. Weatherford's author's note provides additional background. VERDICT This moving account sheds light on shameful events long suppressed or ignored. All collections should consider this title's value in providing historical context to current conversations about racism and America's ongoing legacy of white supremacy.--starred, School Library Journal-- "Journal" (2/1/2021 12:00:00 AM)
The nightmare of racism did not end with abolition, however, and Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre is an extraordinary account of the worst racial attack in American history, a 16-hour massacre in 1921 that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and left as many as 300 people dead.
Author Carole Boston Weatherford begins by celebrating the successes of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street. It was a place where commerce and community thrived through more than 200 businesses, including beauty shops, movie theaters, soda parlors, two Black-owned newspapers and the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. Floyd Cooper's illustrations convey the hustle and bustle of this booming, prosperous area and show the expressive faces of Greenwood's residents filled with pride.
Then, in a spread dominated by shadow, Weatherford explains, All it took was one elevator ride, one seventeen-year-old white elevator operator accusing a nineteen-year-old Black shoeshine man of assault for simmering hatred to boil over.
The horror that follows is depicted with care, mindful that the book's readers will be children. Many readers will feel angry at the injustice and violence that white police officers, city officials and Tulsa residents inflicted on the Black community in Greenwood. Cooper's illustrations shift powerfully as expressions of fear and sadness replace pride on Greenwood residents' faces.
The book ends in Tulsa's modern-day Reconciliation Park with a reminder of the responsibility we all have to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope. Detailed notes from Weatherford and Cooper root the Tulsa Race Massacre in the context of anti-Black violence throughout American history. Cooper's grandfather lived in Greenwood at the time of the massacre, a revelation that adds a deeply personal dimension to the book. Unspeakable deserves to be read by every student of American history. --starred, BookPage
Without glossing over important facts, Weatherford (Dreams for a Daughter) tells the historical events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in language appropriate for young readers. Rhythmic free verse text highlights a thriving community in segregated Tulsa: prosperous Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, had 'nearly two hundred businesses in all, ' including two Black-owned newspapers and 15 Black doctors. Using oil and erasure to form spare backgrounds and realistic, detailed portraits, Cooper's (Sprouting Wings) illustrations pull readers through the events, beginning with a white woman accusing a Black man of assault and resulting in his arrest, an inflammatory headline that incited an angry white mob, and the mob's subsequent massacre of Black citizens and burning of the entire Greenwood neighborhood. By focusing not just on the attack, but also on the positive achievements of the Black business owners, lawyers, and doctors of Greenwood, the book succeeds in teaching the tragedy of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the legacy of Black Wall Street. An author's note explains the impact of the event and a subsequent cover-up by the city.--starred, Publishers Weekly-- "Journal" (1/4/2021 12:00:00 AM)
In 1921, over the course of sixteen hours, the Black community of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was all but destroyed, with most of its residents left homeless, injured, or dead. In picture-book form, Weatherford and Cooper skillfully present this history to young people. Great care is taken to describe the Greenwood community as it once was: known as 'Black Wall Street' and home to Black professionals and working-class folk alike, 'where some say Black children got a better education than whites.' Small details add to the authenticity of the narrative, such as Miss Mabel's Little Rose Beauty Salon, where 'maids who worked for white families got coiffed on their day off and strutted in style.' Far from romanticizing history, Weatherford is equally descriptive in explaining how a false accusation of assault brought simmering racial tensions to a violent end, with a white mob 'looting and burning homes and businesses that Blacks had saved and sacrificed to build.' Many survivors left the area, and those who stayed 'did not speak of the terror.' Not until 1997 was the little-known incident investigated and discovered to be not a 'riot' but a massacre--abetted by both police and city officials. Cooper's illustrations ('oil and erasure') are the perfect partner to this history, the sepia-toned images resembling historical photographs.The portraits of Black residents are particularly moving, seeming to break the fourth wall to implore the reader to remember their story. The author's and illustrator's notes provide additional information, including their individual connections to the topic.--starred, The Horn Book Magazine-- "Journal" (1/1/2021 12:00:00 AM)
'Once upon a time in Tulsa, there was a community called Greenwood.' This Black community was rich in money, love, and culture. So much so that white people searched for any reason possible to tear that community down. This tragic, painful event in American history calls into question notions of freedom, equality, and opportunity ostensibly promised to Black Americans following the emancipation proclamation, and it's particularly pertinent in the current sociopolitical landscape, which is throwing a spotlight on systemic racism in America. Weatherford draws on the folktale flourish 'once upon a time' to set a scene that feels far away and removed from our present reality, while Cooper's soft strokes of muted greens and sepia browns capture the event in a haze of both joy and mourning for the beauty of what Black Tulsa was. Unlike many historical picture books, Weatherford's doesn't shy away from naming white people as the perpetrator. This will cause obvious discomfort for some but will be the catalyst for conversation and change if read with eyes toward justice. Included are author's and illustrator's notes that explore their personal connections to the Tulsa Race Massacre in addition to photographs of Greenwood at the time of the massacre and today. Ideal for classroom libraries and a deeper study of American history, this title is a must-have for those seeking the painful and complete truth.--starred, Booklist-- "Journal" (12/15/2020 12:00:00 AM)