In a move those involved say is important for historical framing, a team from the University of Oklahoma Libraries has helped change the way the Library of Congress catalogs and refers to the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The Library of Congress will change the subject heading for the historical event from “Tulsa Race Riot” to the “Tulsa Race Massacre.”
According to its website, Library of Congress Subject Headings are “a list of words and phrases – called headings – that are used to indicate the topics of library resources. It is used by most academic and research libraries in the United States, as well as by many public and school libraries.”
The distinction between “riot” and “massacre” is an important one because it is a more accurate description of what actually took place, said Karlos Hill, the department chair of OU’s African and African-American Studies Department.
The Tulsa Race Massacre took place in the city’s historically Black Greenwood District from May 31 to June 1, 1921. A mob of white Tulsans, most of whom were given weapons by city officials, went into the Greenwood District and attacked over 800 Black residents, killing what some historians believe to be over 300 people.
“The complete destruction of the Greenwood district, the at least 300 people, mostly Black people, killed [are] all reasons why a more accurate way of framing what happened is massacre, versus a race riot,” Hill said. “That’s the main reason.”
Hill also said that on a deeper level, this change is so necessary because it honors the victims and the community that has long referred to it as a massacre.
“We need to be thinking about centering the commemoration on remembering victims, survivors and their descendants,” Hill said. “So, I think it’s a timely change from talking about it as a race riot to talking about it as a race massacre.”
Todd Fuller, curator of OU Libraries’ Western History collection and a member of the task force that advocated for the name change, said that the change started percolating in 2019, when the task force was put together.
The task force had to submit a request to the Library of Congress for the change, including ample research and citations to solidify their claim that “massacre” was the proper term to use over “riot,” Fuller said.
“A lot of the times in these conversations about subject headers and catalogs, we’re dealing with really outdated terms, where this was the official term for decades and now we’re saying ‘hey, this doesn’t really reflect current usage anymore, we need to change it,’” said Joey Albin, a member of OU’s task force. “Tulsa Race Riot/Massacre was interesting in that there wasn’t a Library of Congress subject header until the beginning of 2019, when they created the Tulsa Race Riot subject header because of increased scholarship on the topic.”
The people who submit these proposals must prove that the name they are looking to switch to has “contemporary usage,” Albin said.
“So for our application, we basically did the same thing but with more extensive documentation showing that in addition to there being more Google results for the ‘Tulsa Race Massacre,’ we also included some other documentation that you can actually see on their Library of Congress data site,” he said.
The information included references from the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commision, the City of Tulsa and the Greenwood District and a speech from Senator James Lankford, R-Okla., to demonstrate that “massacre” was the more accurate terminology.
Lankford, a member of the Centennial Commision, said the event needs to be recognized for what it truly was.
“The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was truly that, a massacre,” Lankford said in a statement to The Transcript. “It is right to recognize the tragedy of Greenwood burning to the ground and the loss of more than 300 lives from May 31 to June 1 in 1921. It’s important to continue to honor the victims of this tragedy as the world looks to Tulsa in a few months to see how Oklahoma and the nation are addressing racial reconciliation 100 years after the worst race massacre in American history.”
Oklahoma state House Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, is also a member of the Centennial Commision, and said that this change in terminology is necessary if people in Oklahoma and the country at large are going to understand and learn about what took place that night in the Greenwood District.
“Once you learn the history of the massacre, you very quickly understand that a massacre is a far more accurate depiction of what happened right there, where hundreds of Black Tulsans were murdered,” Nichols said. “When we think about riots, that’s not typically what we think about when we think about a riot. There were folks that were massacred on that day.”
Nichols also alluded to the fact that to this day, there is still work being done to locate mass graves that may have been dug after the massacre in 1921.
“So, I think massacre just is a more accurate description of the day,” he said. “And as we really work to educate Oklahoma and students across the country about not only the history of the massacre itself but just our history more broadly, I think it’s clear that words matter, and that people understand the ugly nature of termination racism, and to call it a massacre is exactly what it was.”
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