Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour presented former host Judy Woodruff’s latest entry in her bimonthly foray into "America at a Crossroads," the ideological travelogue she’s taken up after retiring from the news desk. She journeyed to her birthplace in Tulsa to amplify a radical call for racial reparations and chide Republicans for allegedly making it harder to teach the history of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921: “Tulsa faces reckoning over historical racism as state law restricts how history is taught.”
Host Amna Nawaz stacked the deck, painting conservative reaction to left-wing overreach in education as dangerous:
Over the past few years, as the country’s been reckoning with questions of race, justice, and equality, many state legislatures have passed laws restricting how American history, particularly institutional racism and its legacy today, can be taught in public schools….
Woodruff laid out that awful day in 1921:
….on the morning of June 1, 1921, a mob of white men chased a group of black men into Greenwood, a 35-block district of black-owned businesses and homes known as Black Wall Street, killing an untold number of residents and burning their community to the ground. Yet the stories of what happened in Tulsa that weekend were for a long time buried in fear, intimidation, and shame.
Woodruff went on an interview-guided tour of City Councillor Vanessa Hall-Harper’s predominantly black Tulsa district, and gently raised a radical subject:
Woodruff: She's currently helping to lead a series of community conversations called “Beyond Apology” to try to engage residents over what more the city should do, including on the question of reparations. So, when you speak of reparations, what do you mean exactly by that?
Hall-Harper: …if you're asking me, Vanessa Hall-Harper, reparations to me is land and cash.
Woodruff mildly replied: To whom?
Hall-Harper: To everyone that was involved, to the -- not only the victims, but to their descendants. But not only were individuals destroyed. Community was destroyed. This entire space, this entire area was impacted….
Woodruff talked to Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum, who wasn’t yet on board the reparations train, saying “keep the dialogue going.”
Woodruff replied: "And yet Republican state lawmakers have arguably made that harder." She described the law unflatteringly: "On its face, 1775 is about preventing discrimination on the basis of race or sex. But it includes a provision that says no individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex, which some worry is so broad and subjective that it's having a chilling effect on the teaching of difficult subjects, like the 1921 massacre."
One can certainly teach about incidents of racist violence in history without intentionally instilling individual guilt into young students.
Woodruff lamented “The law is already having real-world consequences. Last summer, the accreditation ratings of two Oklahoma school districts, Tulsa and Mustang, were downgraded in Tulsa because teachers took part in an implicit bias training.”
She conveniently failed to unpack the phrase “implicit bias training” or why anyone could oppose what’s often a condescending box-checking exercise in corporate bureaucracy. Sample slide from an implicit bias presentation: “What do we do in white people space?” But you won’t find any criticism of corporate wokeness or other aspects of Critical Race Theory on PBS.
Woodruff conducted a markedly chilly interview with local mother Janice Danforth, founder of the Tulsa chapter of Moms for Liberty, a parents’ rights group opposed to CRT in schools. While Woodruff didn’t challenge City Councillor Vanessa Hall-Harper’s demands for cash and land reparations, she bickered with Danforth’s less radical demands.
Woodruff: Are you saying that its wrong for teachers to be conscious of diversity?
Danforth: Not at all.
Woodruff: Then what’s the argument, then?
This Critical Race Theory-pushing segment was brought to you in part by BDO.
A transcript is available, click “Expand” to read:
7:36 p.m. (ET)
Amna Nawaz: Over the past few years, as the country has been reckoning with questions of race, justice and equality, many state legislatures have passed laws restricting how American history, particularly institutional racism and its legacy today, can be taught in public schools. Tonight, Judy Woodruff visits her native Tulsa, Oklahoma, to try to understand how that city, amid its own reckoning, is navigating this moment. It's her latest installment of America at a Crossroads.
Kristi Williams, Community Activist: This is where the Dreamland Theatre was located. And my great aunt Janie, when she was 17 years old, she went on a date. Who would have known that, during this date, the massacre happened?
Judy Woodruff: Community activist Kristi Williams is a descendant of Janie Edwards, who was just a teenager in Tulsa more than 100 years ago, when she snuck out one Saturday night for a date, and found herself fleeing for her life.
Kristi Williams: She remembered that there were gunshots flying everywhere, there was fire everywhere. And she said they dropped bombs, and you could smell the fire and the smoke from miles and miles away.
Judy Woodruff: The day before, a young Black man working as a shoeshiner was arrested for allegedly assaulting a white woman on an elevator. A confrontation at the courthouse followed, and on the morning of June 1, 1921, a mob of white men chased a group of Black men into Greenwood, a 35-block district of Black-owned businesses and homes known as Black Wall Street, killing an untold number of residents and burning their community to the ground. Yet the stories of what happened in Tulsa that weekend were for a long time buried in fear, intimidation, and shame.
Kristi Williams: They didn't want to repeat it because they always feared that, if they talked about it around the people who did it, who were looting the homes and burning the homes and killing people, so you didn't want that to happen again, so you kept quiet about it.
Judy Woodruff: For decades, other stories about Tulsa have been told, a place once known as the oil capital of the world, but, more recently, home to new residents drawn by an affordable cost of living and a transforming downtown, rich in music, history and culture, including Greenwood. In fact, my own story began here. I was born and spent the early years of my life in this, the second largest city in Oklahoma. I only lived in Tulsa for five years, but I came back often to visit family, especially my grandmother, who lived in this house in North Tulsa. I never remember hearing anything about Greenwood until news reports began to circulate a few years ago. So, this represents the evolution of Tulsa's, really, racial history.
Judy Woodruff: Tulsa's Mayor G. T. Bynum comes from a long line of Tulsans, as well as former city mayors on both sides of his family. Judy Woodruff: In 2021, he apologized for the city's failure to protect Black Tulsans 100 years earlier and from decades of discrimination after. And we have tried to, over the last, I'd say, 20 years, as a community, start having those conversations around race in our city that should have been happening for a century. But we have tried to contact all of that into the last 20 years, and really in earnest in the last decade.
Judy Woodruff: Historians estimate that 300 people may have been killed in the massacre. In 2018, Mayor Bynum announced an effort to find out more using ground-penetrating radar, coring, and excavation to explore four sites where victims of the massacre may have been buried. Just recently, a team announced that they had sequenced DNA from six sets of human remains exhumed from Oaklawn Cemetery, and are now seeking the public's help in identifying them. At the same time, there's a human challenge. There's a great lack of trust towards the city because the city didn't do enough for so long.
Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa City Council: The question that I have and the question that so many North Tulsans have is, what are you going to actually do about it? These are abandoned homes. And you see this throughout my district.
Judy Woodruff: City Councillor Vanessa Hall-Harper, who represents Tulsa's First District, in the north, recently gave me a tour of her district, where many Black Tulsans live today.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: And so you have a lot of vacant houses and vacant lots.
Judy Woodruff: Following the carnage of the massacre, many Greenwood buildings and businesses were rebuilt. But in the decades that followed, developers built a highway through the heart of Greenwood, which, combined with housing discrimination in the form of race-restrictive covenants and redlining, drove many residents north.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: This was the only part of town that Black people could live.
Judy Woodruff: Today, Hall-Harper says her district suffers from poor housing, health care, nutrition, and employment. And a 2015 Tulsa Health Department report found a greater-than-10-year difference in the lifespan of those living in a zip code in the north versus just a few miles away in south Tulsa.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: The community living in North Tulsa is largely African American, Black, brown and poor people, and South Tulsa is largely white affluent. That's a problem. And that's not only a problem for North Tulsans. That's a problem for our city.
Judy Woodruff: She campaigned on a promise to address the food deserts in her community. Vanessa Hall-Harper: There's nothing in her discount dollar stores that's healthy.
Judy Woodruff: And, in 2021, with support from Mayor Bynum, she helped deliver fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy in the Oasis Fresh Market. But she says a lot more needs to be done to make this community whole.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: I grew up, when I had to apologize, I had to do more than just say, I'm sorry. I had to do all that I can — could do to make right what I had done.
Judy Woodruff: She's currently helping to lead a series of community conversations called Beyond Apology to try to engage residents over what more the city should do, including on the question of reparations. So, when you speak of reparations, what do you mean exactly by that?
Vanessa Hall-Harper: I think we are in the process right now of having those conversations in Beyond Apology, but if you're asking me, Vanessa Hall-Harper, reparations to me is land and cash.
Judy Woodruff: To whom?
Vanessa Hall-Harper: To everyone that was involved, to the — not only the victims, but to their descendants. But not only were individuals destroyed. Community was destroyed. This entire space, this entire area was impacted. And so what does that form of reparations look like? I think those are conversations that we must have.
Judy Woodruff: Mayor G. T. Bynum: The public has overwhelmingly supported our work around economic development. One could view all of that work as reparations. There are others who say, we have got to levy a property tax on everyone who lives in Tulsa and issue cash payments. That, to me, is a much more challenging question, because you're financially penalizing everyone who lives in Tulsa today for something that criminals did 100 years ago. But we're going through a dialogue. And the way I think you address it is to keep the dialogue going.
Judy Woodruff: And yet Republican state lawmakers have arguably made that harder.
Evan Onstot, KOCO: More fallout from the House Bill 1775 in Oklahoma.
Judy Woodruff: In 2021, despite opposition from school boards and public universities across the state, Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1775, legislation restricting how history can be taught in public schools.
Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-OK): And, as governor, I firmly believe that not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex.
Judy Woodruff: On its face, 1775 is about preventing discrimination on the basis of race or sex. But it includes a provision that says no individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex, which some worry is so broad and subjective that it's having a chilling effect on the teaching of difficult subjects, like the 1921 massacre.
Vanessa Hall-Harper: I think it is ridiculous. I think it's totally ridiculous that you don't teach history of what actually happened, just for fear of making someone feel guilty. Teach them also, in order for this not to happen, these are the things that we must do.
Man: Well, Tulsa Public Schools is the first district in Oklahoma accused of violating a new state law that regulates how districts teach about race and gender.
Judy Woodruff: The law is already having real-world consequences. Last summer, the accreditation ratings of two Oklahoma school districts, Tulsa and Mustang, were downgraded, in Tulsa because teachers took part in an implicit bias training.
Janice Danforth, Founder, Tulsa Moms for Liberty: House Bill 1775 was created for this purpose, to create accountability and transparency.
Judy Woodruff: Tulsa-area resident Janice Danforth spoke in favor of the downgrading at the July state board meeting in Oklahoma City.
Janice Danforth: I ask you today to follow through and let TPS be the example throughout Oklahoma that breaking the law is not only unacceptable, it's illegal, and, as a district, you will pay the price for that decision.
Judy Woodruff: A mother of two boys, one in public school, one in private, in 2021, Danforth founded the Tulsa chapter of Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit parents' rights group started in Florida during the pandemic that has now spread across the country. The group is officially nonpartisan, but aligns itself with conservative causes. Danforth says Tulsa Public Schools, which for years have struggled with low funding and test scores, need to focus on academics.
Janice Danforth: And that should really be the only thing they're focusing on, and not diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Judy Woodruff: Are you saying that its wrong for teachers to be conscious of diversity?
Janice Danforth: Not at all.
Judy Woodruff: Then what is the argument, then?
Janice Danforth: Well, Critical Race Theory, or if you want to look at diversity, equity, inclusion, we don't — equity is making everyone equal. That's not the case, right? We can't be — all have the same thing. That is Marxism, literally. We want equitable, not equity, where everyone has the same opportunity.
Judy Woodruff: I asked Danforth how teachers are supposed to manage how a student feels about a historical event, like the 1921 massacre, without worrying about hurting their district's accreditation or jeopardizing their teaching licenses. How do you carefully make that separation, though?
Janice Danforth: I think you can show that there were some people in that time frame that were not good people. The Ku Klux Klan was a terrible organization that did terrible things to Black people. And I think kids can learn about it without having to have that concept put on them like it's their fault.
Judy Woodruff: And you think teachers are able to make that distinction, should be able to make that distinction?
Janice Danforth: Absolutely. I think if you're worried about how you're teaching it, then you're probably teaching it wrong.
Judy Woodruff: For his part, Mayor Bynum, a Republican, says if, in fact, the new state law is preventing the teaching of history, like the events of 1921, legislators should amend it. And so now its left to this generation of Tulsans to try and catch up on all that and investigate it 100 years after the fact, which is really challenging.
Kristi Williams: I also want to keep educating ourselves on our own. That is really important.
Judy Woodruff: Community activist Kristi Williams isn't waiting for the legislature to act. She recently started her own program, Black History Saturdays, for young people, their parents, and local teachers to meet once a month to learn in an environment free from the fear of saying the wrong thing.
Kristi Williams: You know, history and learning, it is uncomfortable. But if you understand someone's history, then you won't treat them like they are an outcast. If you were taught that all I was, was a slave, my people were just slaves, you don't see that much in me. So, I mean, it's a benefit for all people to learn Black history.
Judy Woodruff: A community that remains divided over its past and how to move forward, but still trying to engage. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Judy Woodruff in Tulsa, Oklahoma.