UNSPEAKABLE: The Tulsa Race Massacre describes the worst racial attack in U.S. history: an attack on May 31st, 1921, that killed up to 300 Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Despite this book’s violent subject matter, Unspeakable can be shared with students in 3rd grade and above; there is nothing graphic here. Unspeakable will be best understood and appreciated in the context of teaching students about segregation. Alternatively, try reading Unspeakable to students to generate research questions to explore further.
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper
- Recommended for: segregation unit, generating questions for further research
- Interest level: 3rd grade & up
- Reading level: 7th grade & up
- lexile: 1100
- guided reading: Z
When I learned about segregation in school, the focus was on efforts to end segregation. In my memory, we kinda skipped straight from the abolition of slavery in the 1860s to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Unspeakable helps fill in this 100-year gap by painting a vivid picture of what life was like in segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1920s.
Once upon a time in Greenwood,
there were some ten thousand people living
in a thirty-five-square-block area.
Train tracks divided the Black and white communities.
Author Carole Boston Weatherford describes a segregated but thriving Black community called Greenwood. She describes a community flourishing with Black churches, libraries, doctors, hairdressers and more. She describes a prosperous stretch of Black businesses referred to as “Black Wall Street.”
Weatherford also describes racial tension that, on May 31st, 1921, erupted in the worst racial massacre in U.S. history. She describes the role police and city leaders played in supporting white mob violence. Finally, she describes the long-term impact the massacre has had on Tulsa’s Black community.
Illustrator Floyd Cooper uses a muted pallet and his signature subtractive process to depict 1920s Greenwood. His images feel like documentary photographs: eerily still, capturing a moment in time. Of the numerous books Cooper has illustrated, Unspeakable is one of my favorites. Cooper’s use of dark, blackish brown and his strong compositions make the images in Unspeakable pop. Kudos to the designer whose font and layout choices complement Cooper’s illustrations.
In Minnesota, students study U.S. history and segregation in 7th grade. I am a big proponent of reading picture books aloud to students of all ages, and I heartily recommend reading Unspeakable aloud as part of a 7th grade segregation unit. As mentioned, this book is also appropriate for elementary school aged kids. Unspeakable can be used to help teach students about the wave of violence against Blacks post-WWI, “Black Wall Streets,” reparations, and to generally help bring the topic of segregation to life.