Tom Hanks was commended Friday for a New York Times op-ed urging Americans to study the Tulsa Race Massacre, which they very likely didn’t learn about in school. “America’s history is messy,” he wrote, “but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people.”
The Oscar-winning actor says that although he has always loved to study history, he has been under-informed about race in America.
“For all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla,” he wrote.
“My experience was common: History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out,” he continued. “Until relatively recently, the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine. I knew about the attack on Fort Sumter, Custer’s last stand and Pearl Harbor but did not know of the Tulsa massacre until last year, thanks to an article in The New York Times.”
Hanks pointed out that in school he learned about everything from the Boston Tea Party to the great San Francisco earthquake and “George Washington Carver’s development of hundreds of products from the common goober.” But the race massacre? Nope.
“Tulsa was never more than a city on the prairie,” he wrote. “The Oklahoma Land Rush got some paragraphs in one of those school years, but the 1921 burning out of the Black population that lived there was never mentioned. Nor, I have learned since, was anti-Black violence on large and small scales, especially between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement; there was nothing on the Slocum massacre of Black residents in Texas by an all-white mob in 1910 or the Red Summer of white supremacist terrorism in 1919. Many students like me were told that the lynching of Black Americans was tragic but not that these public murders were commonplace and often lauded by local papers and law enforcement.”
Hanks urges schools to teach the truth about Tulsa and to “stop the battle to whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students. America’s history is messy but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people.”
He added: “How different would perspectives be had we all been taught about Tulsa in 1921, even as early as the fifth grade? Today, I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered.”
His attempt to right the wrong in schools drew praise. “Tom Hanks is a white man who is trying his best. Others should take heed,” tweeted Rewire News’ senior law and policy editor Imani Gandy.
Writer Sara Benincasa mused, “It’s weird and also cool that Tom Hanks seems to be who you want him to be.”
You can read Tom Hanks’ entire New York Times op-ed by clicking here.