Oklahoma Education Head Says State Will Not Back Away From Tulsa Race Massacre

The head of Oklahoma’s state Department of Education drew local and national criticism after a July 6 2023 meeting for a seemingly evasive answer to a question about the infamous 1921 attack on Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” — but out his full remarks do not point to a softening of instructions around teaching that event.

Recent coverage of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters centers around his response to whether teaching students about the attack — commonly known as the Tulsa Race Riot or the Tulsa Race Massacre — would violate his stance on “critical race theory,” or “CRT” for short, which has inaccurately become a catch-all term among right-wing political figures seeking to discourage discussion of systemic issues related to racism.

Fact Check

Claim: Oklahoma Education Head Backs Away From Teaching Tulsa Race Massacre

Description: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters is backing away from teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma schools, in response to a question about whether teaching students about the attack would violate his stance on “critical race theory”.

Rating: Mostly True

Rating Explanation: Despite some reports suggesting otherwise, Walters’ full remarks indicate that he continues to support teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre and is not lessening the emphasis on it. His responses indicate that he does not believe teaching this event constitutes ‘critical race theory.’

According to a transcript of the meeting in Norman, a member of the audience asked him about the “100 years of silence” surrounding the attack by white Tulsans against Black residents in the area known as Greenwood, which killed an estimated 300 people and left thousands homeless.

“As private citizens, many whites in Tulsa and neighboring communities did extend invaluable assistance to the massacre’s victims, and the relief efforts of the American Red Cross in particular provided a model of human behavior at its best,” the Tulsa Historical Society has recounted. “Although city and county government bore much of the cost for Red Cross relief, neither contributed substantially to Greenwood’s rebuilding, in fact, municipal authorities acted initially to impede rebuilding.”

The Tulsa-based Black Wall Street Times (whose founder, Nehemiah D. Frank, is a descendant of one of the victims of the 1921 massacre) reported on July 8 2023 that a lawsuit on behalf of the last three living survivors of the attack — 109-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher, 108-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, and 102-year-old Hughes Van Ellis — seeking reparations was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the suit cannot be re-filed.

The audience member said:

It was a shameful event. When I learned about it — and not in public schools — I felt bad. I felt angry. I felt all these emotions. Two years ago, when I learned about the concentration camp that happened the day after, I was even more angry, I was even more ashamed that white Tulsans committed genocide against black Tulsans. What I don’t understand is how that does not fall under your definition of CRT.

As NPR reported in September 2022, there is no evidence that “CRT” was taught in K-12 schools in the state; just over a year earlier the state legislature passed House Bill 1775, which does not mention “CRT” but does ban instructors from telling students that “an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

An updated guidance sheet also includes this statement as an example of “acceptable” instruction:

Teaching that, at one time in our nation’s history, African Americans were treated as inferior citizens, as evidenced by slavery, the 3/5 compromise, and Jim Crow laws, and the fact that groups existed, such as the Klu Klux Klan, with its acts of intimidation and violence.

Nevertheless, Walters refers to HB 1775 as “in essence, the critical race theory bill” when responding, saying that “all Oklahoma standards must be taught.” He adds:

This is not an end-around to say we’re not going to teach the Tulsa Race Massacre. That is absolutely, certainly not the intention; it was verbatim in the bill to say all of these standards have to be taught.

I believe this is absolutely the greatest country in the history of the world. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t mistakes. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t live up to our principles. The only way our kids have the ability to learn from history and make this country continue to be the best country is to continue to understand the times we fell short. I’m very clear, I’m very direct on understanding those moments. I will always support that. Our kids should know that of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Our kids should know that, they absolutely should; there’s standards around it. I’m continuing to work to develop even more robust curriculum around these events. I don’t want to hide any part of history. It all needs to be right there — very plain, very direct, so that we can learn from them. So to me it’s very important.

The audience member then asks again, “How does the Tulsa Race Massacre not fall under your definition of CRT?”

Walters answered:

I would never tell a kid that because of your race, because of the color of your skin, or your gender or anything like that, you are less of a person or are inherently racist. That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals. Oh, you can. Absolutely, historically, you should. “This was right. This was wrong. They did this for this reason.” But to say it was inherent in that because of their skin is where I say that is critical race theory — you’re saying that a race defines a person, I reject that. So I say you can be judgemental of the issue, of the action, of the content of the character in the individual, absolutely. But let’s not tie it to the skin color and say the skin color determined it.

The coverage of Walters’ statement has focused on the second answer. In a statement, Walters said news outlets were attempting to “create a fake controversy” in twisting his remarks.

“Let me be crystal clear that history should be accurately taught: 1. The Tulsa Race Massacre is a terrible mark on our history,” he said. “The events on that day were racist, evil, and it is inexcusable. Individuals are responsible for their actions and should be held accountable. 2. Kids should never be made to feel bad or told they are inferior based on the color of their skin.”

Audio of Walters’ remarks in Norman spread online a week after he appeared at a conference hosted by the right-wing group “Moms for Liberty” and called for the end of the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that “the elite” and labor unions had seized control of the educational system.

“We have to be aggressive,” he said. “They are not going to stop. They’ve been at it for 40 years. They have done a really good job. They have built an entire apparatus from the federal government to the local teachers’ union to keep you out of the process.”

The Guardian, in reporting on the uproar surrounding Walters, noted that he was also part of the cadre of right-wing political operatives spreading the myth that students were “identifying as cats.”

Walters was back in the news in August 2023 when KFOR-TV reported that he provided a “confidential report” bashing his predecessor as superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, but only to Republican members of the state legislature.

Walters reportedly claimed in the document that Hofmeister’s administration did an “extremely poor” job of managing federal funding. However, the Norman-based newspaper The Oklahoman reported that a state audit blamed Walters’ office for mishandling funds that were part of a $39.9 million federal grant. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is reportedly investigating the matter.

Correction, 7/7/2023, 4:04 PM PST: A previous version of this story referred to Mark Walters. His name is Ryan Walters. We apologize for any confusion. -bb
Update 7/10/2023, 1:02 PM PST: Updated to reflect the dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as other political rhetoric from Walters. — ag
Update 8/14/2023, 1:00 AM PST: Updated to reflect reports of a federal investigation into the use of federal grant money by the Oklahoma state department of education; and that Walters’ office separately accused his predecessor of bad financial policy in a report to Republican Party lawmakers. — ag