Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters denied on Thursday that race was the main reason behind the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 that saw up to 300 people killed and left thousands of Black residents displaced.
Tulsa was known at the time for its thriving African American community in the Greenwood District where Black professionals ran multiple businesses. Because the business district was booming and thriving, it was often referred to as the Black Wall Street.
Walters was invited by the Cleveland County Republican Party to speak at the Norman Central Library when he had a heated exchange with attendees. The superintendent first spoke about his policies when he made remarks that some attendees found inappropriate and left the room in response, according to local news station Fox 25.
“It doesn’t matter how much the radical left attacks me,” Walters said during the public forum. “It doesn’t matter how much the teachers union spends against me. I will never stop speaking truth.”
During the event, one attendee then asked Walters, who reportedly supports banning certain books from school, about whether the Tulsa Race Massacre falls under his definition of critical race theory (CRT), which denotes that systemic racism is part of American institutions such as the criminal justice system and the education system.
“Let’s not tie it to the skin color and say that the skin color determined that,” Walters said, which angered some attendees, with one woman saying, “This divisive rhetoric, the kids are watching this. The kids are watching this.”
Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, an executive director at Justice for Greenwood, denounced Walters’ remarks and said that it’s “beyond belief” for a top elected education official to say that. Walters, who was endorsed by GOP Senator Ted Cruz, also served as the Oklahoma Secretary of Education between September 2020 and April 2023.
“He’s misinformed and this is a disgusting comment and it’s so inaccurate and false,” Solomon-Simmons told Newsweek. “The massacre was all about the skin color of the Black people who were destroyed. The [white mob] call Greenwood N-word town. They said they wanted to run the Blacks out of Tulsa.”
Solomon-Simmons added that Walters’ statement has a “chilling impact” on education across the state as he has been leading change across schools and trying to “ensure that nothing about race and discrimination is being discussed” inside classrooms.
“They [Walters and similar leaders] do not want the truth to be told. They don’t want the true history, not just the history of Black people, but the history of those who have oppressed, discriminated against, beaten, lynched, killed, and destroyed Black people,” the attorney said. “He said he doesn’t want anyone to feel bad for what occurred because of their skin color, but what he’s really saying is he doesn’t want the children of Oklahoma to have humanity.”
The superintendent acknowledged during the Thursday event that people might disagree with his views, but that “this is what Oklahoma needs to be about. This is how we get our schools back on track: us coming together despite what we agree or disagree on. Let’s have that discussion.”
The Tulsa Race Massacre happened after Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was inside an elevator with a white woman named Sarah Page, whom he had a confrontation with. Though details of the encounter remain unknown, some historians think he stood on her foot, but accounts of the situation changed into a story that he allegedly tried to rape her.
According to the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, the event spurred a confrontation between Black and white armed mobs, which later led to the massacre that extended throughout the course of 18 hours between May 31 and June 1. Thousands of armed white rioters looted and burned businesses and homes in Greenwood. By the end of the massacre, 35 blocks and approximately 191 businesses were destroyed, and 800 people were injured. Nearly 10,000 Black residents were displaced and the initial death toll at the time was 36, according to the Associated Press.
The Tulsa Reparations Coalition, which was formed in 2001, reported that the number of people killed likely ranges between 75 and 300. This commission confirmed that over 1,000 homes were burned down, 400 were looted, with claims filed against the city in 1921 amounting to a total of $4 million ($58 million in 2020 money value).
Some of the massacre survivors, including Viola Ford Fletcher, filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa demanding reparations over the 1921 events. Fletcher, who was a child at the time and now at the age of 109, will be releasing a memoir about her life as a victim of the massacre, according to the Associated Press. The book called Don’t Let Them Bury My Story, which will be available for purchase in August, also urges readers to continue pursuing justice and reconciliation regardless of how long it takes.
Newsweek reached out by phone to the Viola Ford Fletcher foundation and emailed Walters for comment.