Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
Carole Boston Weatherford, Author
Floyd Cooper, Illustrator
Carolrhoda Books, Nonfiction, Feb. 1, 2021
Suitable for ages: 8-12
Themes: Tulsa Race Riot, African Americans, Greenwood, Racism, Violence, History
Opening: “Once upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma, prospectors struck it rich in the oil fields. The wealth created jobs, raised buildings, and attracted newcomers from far and wide, seeking fortune and a fresh start.”
In the early 1900s, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was home to a thriving African American community. The Greenwood district had it’s own school system, libraries, churches, restaurants, post office, movie theaters, and more. But all that would change in the course of two terrible, UNSPEAKABLE DAYS.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of armed white Tulsans attacked Greenwood. They looted homes and businesses and burned them to the ground as Black families fled. The police did nothing to protect Greenwood, and as many as three hundred African Americans were killed. More than eight thousand were left homeless.
News of the Tulsa Race Massacre — one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history — was largely suppressed, and no official investigation occurred for seventy-five years.
Celebrated author Carole Boston Weatherford and acclaimed illustrator Floyd Cooper provide a sensitive and powerful introduction to the Tulsa Race Massacre, helping young readers understand the events of the past so we can move toward a better future for all. May 31 marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre.
Why I like this book:
Carole Boston Weatherford begins the story of Greenwood on a celebratory note as she eases readers into the story. Weatherford writes in free verse, which highlights the community pride and softens the violence at the end.
The setting occupies the first two-thirds of the book. Each page turn begins with “Once upon a time…” and focuses on the beauty and prosperity that a thriving Black community achieves. Segregation laws call for separate neighborhoods, and train tracks divide the Black and white communities. Ten thousand people live in a thirty-five-square block area. Many Black businesses are opened along a one-mile stretch of Greenwood Avenue. The thriving community is self-sufficient and becomes known as the “Black Wall Street.” There are restaurants, grocery stores, furriers, shops, schools, libraries, a hospital, churches, hotel, post office, and railroad and street cars coaches for Black families. The community has 15 doctors, and many lawyers and prominent businessmen. And there are two Black-owned newspapers. The community is totally self-sufficient. Such an amazing achievement for the families who call Greenwood home.
The author introduces the conflict that begins to arise in 1921, when disgruntled white Tulsa residents don’t appreciate the fact that African Americans can achieve success and wealth. With tensions rising, all it takes is a white female elevator operator accusing a Black man of assault, and violence erupts. Weatherford masterfully moves her readers into the heartbreaking events that follow in an age-appropriate manner.
Floyd Cooper’s breathtaking oil illustrations show a community of happy children and content adults going about their daily lives. He captures the hustle and bustle of a busy and booming town, and the pride of all who live there. Toward the end of the book is a double spread with a dark page that alerts readers that something is about to change. Cooper’s artwork contributes significantly in the telling of the story and ends with hope. Make sure you check out the endpaper photograph of a town burned to the ground.
Resources: The author’s and illustrator’s notes include their personal relationship with the story. There is also additional historical information, explanation about the massacre’s longtime erasure from history, historical photographs, and pictures of memorials. Cooper grew up in Tulsa and heard the stories from his grandfather. Make sure you listen to Floyd Cooper’s YouTube comments below.
Carole Boston Weatherford is the author of numerous books, including Freedom in Congo Square, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, which received a Caldecott Honor; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, which received a Caldecott Honor and a Sibert Honor; and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, which won a Caldecott Honor and an NAACP Image Award. Her writing covers such topics as jazz and photography, as well as slavery and segregation eras. The daughter of educators, she has a passion for rescuing events and figures from obscurity by documenting American history. She lives in North Carolina.
Floyd Cooper received a Coretta Scott King Award for his illustrations for The Blacker the Berry and won Coretta Scott King honors for Brown Honey in Broom Wheat Tea, Meet Danitra Brown, and I Have Heard of a Land. He has illustrated numerous books, including Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey. Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he first heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre from his grandfather, who survived it as a young man. Floyd now lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons.