Pairing Picture Books and Primary Source: Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper

UnspeakableSince it came out earlier this year, many people have read Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. I waited. The Tulsa race massacre was something I had recently learned about. How could what I knew be in a children’s picture book?

Finally, I relented. Knowing the previous work of author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Floyd Cooper, I should have trusted them and picked up the picture book earlier. Unspeakable not only tells the story of the massacre that took place in Tulsa in 1921, it also tells the story of the thriving Black community that lived in Greenwood in the city of Tulsa, the devastation they experienced, and the rebuilding that followed.

More about Unspeakable

I had the opportunity to speak with Carole Boston Weatherford about Unspeakable. You can listen to our conversation here. Carole shared what I read and saw on the pages. In both the words and illustrations, there were intentions to highlight the Black community in Greenwood. From store signs in illustrations to writing about the schools for children and jobs held by community members, the reader comes to see the Greenwood community.

That celebration of the community was something that stuck with me as I continued to think about this story. It made me wonder how primary sources could play an accompanying role in understanding the men, women, and children of Greenwood.

Finding Related Primary Sources

The Tulsa Star

The Tulsa Star

Weatherford left one clue in Unspeakable that led me down a path to finding related primary sources. She mentions two black-owned newspapers, The Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. Chronicling America allows you to search for digitized newspapers by state. Better yet, searches can be narrowed down by ethnicity. Searching for African American newspapers in Oklahoma, I found three results. One of them was The Tulsa Star

While the digitized holdings for The Tulsa Star only run through early 1921, months prior to the race massacre, I knew that this would still be a valuable set of primary sources to explore. 

The community, in some ways, would be reflected in the pages of the newspapers. Articles that are printed, editorials that are shared, advertisements that are displayed are all part of that reflection of the community. 

Interacting with Primary Sources

Browsing the issues, focus students’ attention on the weekly issues from early 1921 or issues from 1920. Ask students to view the pages through the lens of learning more about the Greenwood community. Challenge students to find an article, editorial, or advertisement that can provide some information about the Black citizens of Tulsa. 

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma

To add an understanding of place, introduce students to the 1915 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for Tulsa. North Greenwood Avenue can be found on page 10 but other places referenced in the newspaper may be on surrounding pages

As students find references to addresses, they can find those locations on the Sanborn map.

Ask students:

  • What did you notice about the culture of the Greenwood community?
  • What did you notice about the places and people that you read about?
  • How did the map impact your understanding of the place?

Weatherford and Cooper’s book can give students an understanding of the Black community in Tulsa. Primary sources can allow them a deeper exploration of that same community.

Additional Primary Sources Related to the Tulsa Race Massacre

There may be reasons to explore primary sources related to the massacre itself. Several institutions hold collections of primary sources connected with the Tulsa race massacre.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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