Surayya Walters | Why didn’t I learn about the Tulsa massacre at school?

Original images from the Special Collections Department, McFarlin Library, Tulsa University and Getty Images Credit: Isabel Liang

I’m black. I was born in the United States. I am a student. And I never heard of the Tulsa massacre at school.

My first encounter with Tulsa was on a YouTube video. Watching the video elicited a plethora of emotions: sadness, confusion and, surprisingly, regret. I mourned the years I spent ignoring the deep-rooted systemic and economic racism that destroyed the livelihoods of a progressive African-American establishment. Why was I not informed of such a grave injustice? How did I stay awfully ignorant?

The story of the Tulsa massacre has existed for a century before I learned of its deleterious effects. The massacre was started by a mob after a white woman accused a black man of assault. A progressive black establishment in Tusla, in the Greenwood district of Oklahoma, was then set on fire by a mob full of violent and armed arsonists. Reporting of the massacre was limited at the time, although hundreds of people died and many more were left homeless.

How could such an important part of American history remain hidden? Why do we refuse to modify our history books or integrate them into college economics courses? Business schools have a social responsibility to educate their students on the sociological and environmental factors external to balance sheets, supply curves, and net present value calculations that we painstakingly analyze. According to the Joint Economic Committee’s “Economic State of Black America” report, 97% of respondents underestimate the gap between the wealth held by black and white families. Our education system lacks the ability to communicate the racial impact on access to capital. As the report says, “the majority of Americans do not recognize the magnitude of these problems.”

The Tulsa Massacre widened the racial wealth gap, leading to disparate quality of life outcomes. From access to education, healthcare, and even venture capital, your race is the primary factor that determines your quality of life. Black entrepreneurs currently receive less than 1% of venture capital funding. In 2019, the homeownership rate in the United States was 64.6%. For black Americans, it was 42.1%. In January 2020, the unemployment rate for black Americans was 6%, 1.9 times the national average.

On this July 4th, I think very critically about my identity as a Black American, the Tulsa Massacre, and what our educational institutions can do to communicate its relevance and importance in studying inequalities in business. . It is time for us to start discussing and dismantling the impact of the Tulsa massacre in college courts. We can modify our economics and entrepreneurship classes to include this important moment in history. Manifesting a visionary, fair, and American agenda requires a commitment to sharing the truths behind our current state, no matter how harsh or painful they may be.

My introductory economics classes at Wharton never touched on the hidden sociology that influenced this long-standing and race-influenced wealth gap. The company is sociology. The business world is a product of the historical landscape that surrounds it. The boundaries between scholarly disciplines are blurred so that economics is not isolated from sociology, Africana and urban studies. And yet, we discussed urban real estate without mentioning gentrification and discovered the factors of production – land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship – without the unimaginable impact of running on the four accolades. Students should not graduate from top institutions without a comprehensive understanding of the racial impact on economic measures of wealth and well-being, especially as these institutions intend to shape the next generation of leaders in all factions of society.

Discussing and teaching the factors relevant to the Tulsa Massacre is vital for a true understanding of the wealth gap and the ideologies that combat it. In a class I took in the spring, we debated the merits of the Universal Basic Income (RBI). We talked about its advantages and disadvantages, and its potential effects on our existing social systems. Our arguments have been framed from a bipartisan perspective, rather than exhaustively recognizing relevant racial and sociological forces. Factors like UBI inform the conversation around repairs and therefore need to be taught together. Without learning more about the Tulsa Massacre and similar events, business and economics students will not have the ability to analyze social change efforts from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The Tulsa Massacre can be used to present the often unrecognized struggles facing black entrepreneurs. Black Wall Street, as the neighborhood was called, was home to theaters and small businesses that were all owned by blacks. For many, entrepreneurship is a vital component of the quintessential American dream, a chance to open a mom-and-pop store, manifest an innovative vision, or cultivate generational wealth. The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa was the sudden destruction of that dream. Today, black entrepreneurs still face obstacles in manifesting this dream, whether it is facing credit or lending discrimination or the limited access to the aforementioned venture capital. It’s time to put their stories back in the spotlight and refocus our efforts on supporting black entrepreneurship. Universities can teach Black Wall Street while launching and marketing innovative programs to encourage entrepreneurship among multicultural students.

During the three years I attended Wharton, I wanted to see multiculturalism recognized in business. Our history is rich and full, a pillar of American history, and should not be overlooked by economics or any curriculum. Black Wall Street’s analysis in Tulsa illustrates two realities of the black economic experience: our entrepreneurial spirit and our desire for self-sufficiency, and the obstacles we face in acting on these forces. It is time for our classes to adapt to these realities. On July 4, there is nothing more American than ensuring that multicultural and under-represented narratives are properly considered in every academic discipline.

SURAYYA WALTERS is a rising senior from Wharton who is focusing in management and marketing with a minor in urban education policy from New Rochelle, NY Her email address is surayyaw@wharton.upenn.edu.


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