Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford

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.”

Publisher Synopsis:

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.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors

*Reviewed from a library copy.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

29 thoughts on “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford

  1. It´s hard for me to wrap my head around how this could have happened. But then violence against people who are different has always been a mystery to me. This is a book that would require discussion at home or at school. Part of history that should not be buried.


    • It is really hard to understand how this event happened and was not acknowledged/investigated until 1995. Cooper heard stories about it from his grandfather. We do know what it was like 100 years ago. I am glad that there are age-appropriate books being written so young people can understand history. It is a relevant topic today. Agree, great discussion book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I remember you reviewed a MG book about Greenwood, which I was glad to see the detail. This story is full of gorgeous Cooper illustrations, which shows a flourishing community until the riots began — at the end of the book. There is a park there today, so it will be interesting to see if there is a remembrance event there in two weeks.


  2. This sounds like an incredibly powerful story about an incredibly awful event—I was never taught about this in schools in any sort of meaningful way, so I should try to cram this book into the summer. Thanks so much for the excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a powerful story and I appreciated how Weatherford presented the information to readers. None of were taught about this event in school because it wasn’t acknowledged. Cooper heard about it from his Grandfather (see video) who was a resident there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This book is so well done, so important. Somehow, the author found the perfect words to share this horrendous event, an event that contributes to understanding our world today and impresses upon everyone the need to act strongly to ensure social justice. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Weatherford’s presentation is outstanding and Cooper’s illustrations stunning. I like that most of the book focuses on Greenwood and its residents, until the riot occurs at the end. Social justice is so critical right now and important to our moving forward has a humanity free of racism.


  4. Wow. I haven’t heard of the Greenwood Massacre. I think the author made a good choice to use verse to tell this tragic story. I also like how the art supports the text, especially how it changes it at the end. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are a number of videos with the author and Cooper — all very interesting. I can’t think their collaboration was perfect. And they each had reasons to tell this horrific story.


  5. This sounds like a part of your history that must be told and retold. I heard about it first today in another book that I think you may have recommended, ‘The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person’. It’s truly shocking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Weatherford really knew how to tell this story, in an age-appropriate manner. And Cooper’s illustrations really carry the story to another height. With the 100th anniversary coming up in less than two weeks, now seemed the time to share this story. So relevant today!


  6. This is such an important event for people to know about. I am interested to see how Weatherford has made it appropriate for a middle-grade audience. That is quite a task. I will be looking for a copy. Thanks for telling me about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m really glad to see more books with aspects of history that haven’t been talked about. I can see how emotional this story is right from the cover.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have been hearing a lot about this seldom talked about horror in US history. It is great that authors and pushers are fling in the stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m glad to see authors writing the story. And there was a special on Greenwood on 60 Minutes last night — the investigations are far from being done. Interesting segment. You might keep your eye on the news this week for other reporting.


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