Overlooked History: Indian Boarding Schools

Education is a gift. It is the key to many things we as a country hold dear: freedom, democracy, and upward economic mobility. It can never be a bad thing, right?

Except it can be and has been. The Indian Boarding School Movement was a dark period in education from the late 18th century into the early 20th century in the United States. These were often began by Christian missionaries and then funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The philosophy of most can be summed up in the words of the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, Richard Henry Pratt, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.” These schools sought to assimilate Native children by (often forcibly) removing them from their families and tribes and punishing them for any signs of “Indian” while at the school. They were not allowed to speak their Native language or follow any customs, including manner of dress or hair.

The proponents of these schools spoke in flowery terms of opening opportunities to the students to join “civilized” society and be successful. The result however was the near extinction of many Native languages and cultures. The children were often subjected to physical abuse in addition to the emotional damage caused by the removal from family and being taught that their very essence was wrong and something of which to be ashamed.

To learn more about this movement and the impact on Natives to this day, you can check out:

Our Spirits Don’t Speak English – d1x“a Native American perspective on Indian Boarding Schools. This DVD produced by Rich-Heape Films, Inc. uncovers the dark history of U.S. Government policy which took Indian children from their homes, forced them into boarding schools and enacted a policy of educating them in the ways of Western Society. This DVD gives a voice to the countless Indian children forced through a system designed to strip them of their Native American culture, heritage and traditions.

View collections of photographs at:

An Indian Boarding School Photo Gallery and Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

Further Reading:

Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, 1879-2000


Overlooked History: Orphan Trains

Beginning in 1853, the Orphan Trains ran from major cities on the East coast of the United States to various communities westward. Most of the trains final destinations were in the Midwest or pioneer communities that were growing at the time of the early trains. More than 200,000 children were placed in new homes through this predecessor to our current foster care system. The Children’s Aid Society based in New York City and later the New York Foundling Hospital were a major source of the children but there were also other organizations involved at various points.
The children that were placed on the trains were often homeless or abandoned. Some were relinquished by impoverished parents or removed from abusive homes. They were mostly placed in rural communities and on farms. While some stories reveal abuse and neglect at the hands of the foster families, many children were given placements with loving and caring parents that were able to provide a life that would have never been possible in the slums of the major cities from which they came.
The children headed west on passenger trains accompanied by usually two adults who then met with the person in charge of placements at each stop along the route. The adults interested in taking in a child would meet the group at a designated place and select a child then.
There are various first hand accounts written by the children that discuss this process and the life that came afterwards.
The Orphan Trains continued until 1929 (some records say the early 1930s) but ended due to the development of modern foster care, the Great Depression, and the enactment of laws in various states that forbid the bringing in of orphans from out-of-state.
Today, researchers believe that there are more than two million descendents of the train riders. There are various historical societies that preserve the records and memories of local riders.

To learn more, you can check out these resources among many others:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/orphan/ – American Experience: Orphan Trains on PBS.org is a fantastic documentary to introduce the stories of the train children

http://orphantraindepot.org/history/ – introductory information and links to various other historical sites about the Orphan Trains

Historical fiction: A Family Apart by Lois Lowry is a great tween/young adult introduction to the story and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a great introduction for young adults and adults alike

If you find other resources, please share here.

The Greenwood Massacre

There are always overlooked stories in history.  These are almost always the stories of the minority and the marginalized. Oklahoma is no different.

In recent years, there has been a focus on uncovering and discussing the horrific tragedy of Greenwood in 1921. It is important to know about the destruction of the incredibly affluent and successful “Black Wall Street” that occurred.  It is a horrific tragedy that was unfortunately not rare for the time.

Throughout African American communities across the country, Tulsa was known as a place of economic opportunity throughout the first decades of the 20th century.  There were Black owned hotels, stores, and various businesses.  The success of this community was often held up as a standard to other communities.

The events of May 31, 1921 are often referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot” by journalists and historians.  I prefer to refer to it as the Greenwood Massacre.  In less than 24 hours, hundreds were killed, businesses and homes burned to the ground, and countless citizens of Greenwood were injured.

It all began with an incident at the Drexel Hotel.  A young African American employee stumbled leaving an elevator and was charged with rape for having fallen into another employee, Sarah Page. The press at the time portrayed Sarah as an “innocent orphan” that was “scratched and attacked” by a vicious Dick Rowland.  The characterization of both was loaded and mostly inaccurate.

There was mob crying for the lynching of Rowland.  At a time when an average of two African Americans were lynched daily in this country, this was not an empty threat.  A group of men from Greenwood went to the jail to protect Rowland from the mob.  It was then that all hell broke loose.

The mob attacked the men as they walked down the street toward the jail. They quickly deputized multiple white men and were given the authority of the government to attack.  Most of the mob was originally organized by the Ku Klux Klan.

They then marched on Greenwood. There are reports of military equipment being used in the attack as well. The district was attacked at the sound of a whistle while the people of Greenwood were sleeping.  As people attempted to flee, the mob shot indiscriminately at those running. The emptying houses and businesses were looted by the mob of anything of value. There were women seen walking with the mob carrying shopping bags to carry away looted belongings.

It was a night of terror and thievery. The homes and businesses were set afire after they were looted. The telegraph and phone lines were cut in order to make it impossible for any news of the attack to spread. The fire department stood by in order to protect the property of white citizens that was near the district as it burned but provided no assistance to the people of Greenwood.

This was no unorganized gang of criminals. The truth is that the mayor, the police department, and the Ku Klux Klan had orchestrated an attack of near-military precision. It was initiated block by block and systematically. Military planes dropped bombs on the district, including a 42 day old church. Hospitals with patients inside were burned down.  Women carrying infants were shot and killed while running for safety.

It did not end until National Guard troops arrived on June 1st from Oklahoma City. They worked for hours to put down the unrest. They did however pause to eat breakfast before declaring martial law a few hours later.

Black people were rounded up into detention centers.  They were only allowed to leave if vouched for by a white person. Those who were able to leave Tulsa often did not ever return. Those who remained fought to rebuild a community literally out of the ashes. This was further hindered by the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange and City Commission with changes in building codes that rezoned the district for commercial and industrial construction only and that increased requirements for construction to make it economically prohibitive to rebuild.

Generations later, there is a thriving movement to rebuild and preserve the heritage of the Greenwood District. It was not until 1996 that the incident was investigated fully and the truth told.

For further reading:

James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2002

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 a thorough and well written examination of the events available online

“Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 archive”, University of Tulsa McFarlin Library, Special Collections, links to inventory, related materials, and photographs

Tulsa Race Riot – A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Tulsa Reparations Coalition Website

“Tulsa Race Riot”, Oklahoma Historical Society

Lesson Plans:

Linda Christensen. “Why Teaching the Tulsa Race Riot is More Than Just Teaching History”, 28 May 2013, GOOD Magazine.

Linda Christensen. “Burned Out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silent Voices of the Tulsa Race Riot”, 8-page lesson plan for high school Students, 2013, Zinn Education Project/Rethinking Schools.

Multimedia Resources:

Tulsa race riot Collection of 11 real photographic postcards of the race riot that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921. Pictures illustrate the devastation to the Greenwood District’s African American community, including whole blocks burned to the ground, bodies of victims and the convention hall where Greenwood citizens were detained.

“Black Wall Street, Little Africa, Tulsa, Oklahoma”  full version of documentary streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4IvFXPGYNA