No, History Will Not Remember

No one told me about Tulsa until I was in my 30s. I suspect I’m not the only one. Most Gen-Xers and older millennials, even those of us who went to college, didn’t have the story of how “Black Wall Street” was razed to the ground by white supremacists in our curricula. I had an advanced degree and a civil rights law practice before I heard about it for the first time.

Now, on its 100th anniversary, the Tulsa Massacre is finally part of our popular national narrative — for now, anyway. That is to say: White folks who happen to be floating in certain media bubbles know about it. It gets coverage on NPR. A few documentaries are available for streaming. People write about it for publications that are still printed on slick paper. How long we retain this information in our collective databanks, and what we choose to do with it, remains to be seen.

The fact that no one told us about Tulsa might reasonably lead conscientious white people to ask: What else are we missing?

For example, I didn’t know that white supremacists overthrew Wilmington, North Carolina’s elected, multiracial government in 1898 until shamefully late in life. I learned about the coup after I started my teaching career, from a textbook on constitutional litigation I require my law students to buy.

The story of Wilmington is so appalling that it’s hard to justify its omission from any history of the late 19th century. A white mob gathered for a reading of a “White Declaration of Independence,” which asserted that white people “will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.” The next day, 2,000 armed terrorists destroyed the town’s newspaper, forced the mayor and the entire police department to resign, and put the city’s integrationist leaders on trains, with instructions never to return.

An Atlantic article from 2017 describes how the history of Wilmington was “nearly lost.” For the majority of us, it was lost, and is still. Where were we supposed to learn about Wilmington? Or Tulsa? Or Clinton, Mississippi? Or Nat Turner, or George Boxley, or Denmark Vesey? Sure, the information is out there now, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Must someone go to law school, sign up for a constitutional litigation class and buy a $200 book before a teacher explains the history of how an entire American city was taken over by white terrorists?

When I was in school, history was an empty desert in all directions, with only a few recognizable landmarks. Signposts were carefully curated to ensure that students only went to certain places. The rest was forgotten. For students now, it’s more like quicksand; there’s too much information, constantly shifting and giving way beneath your feet, making it impossible to stand in one place for very long. You can only grab a few branches to pull yourself out, and those become the reality you cling to. Either way, without the right person there to put up signs and hand out branches, you end up with a head full of information that’s irrelevant, false, even dangerous.

Wilmington and Tulsa are both slivers of a much larger history of the post-Reconstruction era; one that shows a very different picture of what life should be like in the South today. I think most white people would be surprised to know that, absent aggressive voter suppression and violent temper tantrums by white mobs, many parts of the South would likely be governed in toto by Black people. All Black legislatures. All Black city halls. All Black juries. The success of 2020’s organizing campaign focused on marginalized people in Georgia gives us a glimpse of the sleeping dragons that lie beneath the earth. You can see why racist curators of history might have wished to keep that information to themselves.

In recent years, academics are finally getting to the question of whose responsibility it is to teach America’s racist history. There are students who still do not believe in systemic racism, and who do not want to accept our past, atone for it, or allow for the possibility that it could happen again. But whose problem is that? Does a civil procedure or torts professor have to talk history? Must we teach about racism in a class on, say, tax or real estate law? Who hands out the branches that students must cling to?

The fact that Tulsa, Wilmington and countless other gruesome stories on history’s backburner were “nearly lost” gives us the only possible answer: It’s everyone’s responsibility. If you are a teacher in any capacity, you have an obligation to keep these stories alive. If you are a weekend math tutor, and your students aren’t hearing it from any other source, you’ve got to talk race. If you run a Sunday school, your flock needs to know about the history of sheep and wolves. If you’ve got your own kids, they need to hear about Jim Crow at the dinner table. We buried these bones for years. It’s our collective duty to unearth them.

We like to believe the childish notion that “history will remember such-and-such injustice,” as though history itself were a great elephant god or an omniscient super-Santa, taking notes on all human wrongdoing for future reference. History, left to its own devices, will assuredly not remember. History is slippery, forgetful and notoriously unreliable. History only remembers if you constantly stoke the embers of its ever-dying brain, if you shake it out of its haze, if you pry its eyelids open and make it remember.

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about
Midwesterners who are making the world a better place.
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