Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

by Carole Boston Weatherford (Author) Floyd Cooper (Illustrator)

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
Reading Level: 4th – 5th Grade

Celebrated author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Floyd Cooper provide a powerful look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation's history. The book traces the history of African Americans in Tulsa's Greenwood district and chronicles the devastation that occurred in 1921 when a white mob attacked the Black community.

News of what happened was largely suppressed, and no official investigation occurred for seventy-five years. This picture book sensitively introduces young readers to this tragedy and concludes with a call for a better future.

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Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

Without glossing over important facts, Weatherford (Dreams for a Daughter) tells the historical events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in language appropriate for young readers. Rhythmic free verse text highlights a thriving community in segregated Tulsa: prosperous Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, had "nearly two hundred businesses in all," including two Black-owned newspapers and 15 Black doctors. Using oil and erasure to form spare backgrounds and realistic, detailed portraits, Cooper's (Sprouting Wings) illustrations pull readers through the events, beginning with a white woman accusing a Black man of assault and resulting in his arrest, an inflammatory headline that incited an angry white mob, and the mob's subsequent massacre of Black citizens and burning of the entire Greenwood neighborhood. By focusing not just on the attack, but also on the positive achievements of the Black business owners, lawyers, and doctors of Greenwood, the book succeeds in teaching the tragedy of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the legacy of Black Wall Street. An author's note explains the impact of the event and a subsequent cover-up by the city. Ages 9-10. Author's agent: Rubin Pfeffer, Rubin Pfeffer Content. (Feb.)

Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 3-6--One hundred years ago, the Greenwood district of Tulsa, OK, was a prosperous Black community. Restaurants, beauty salons, movie theaters, and dozens of other businesses thrived along "Black Wall Street." Cooper's sepia-tone illustrations depict the bustle of everyday life as people hurried to shops or churches and gathered with friends. A stark spread signals the tragic turning point that resulted in the decimation of Greenwood's Black community. A 17-year-old white woman elevator operator accused a 19-year-old Black man of assault. Incited by calls to action printed in white-owned newspapers, thousands of armed white men headed to the jail, where they met 30 armed Black men determined to stop a lynching. The confrontation resulted in the deaths of two Black men and 10 white men. Angry that they didn't get to the jailed Black man, a white mob invaded the town, looted, and committed arson. The police did nothing to protect the Black citizens. Up to 300 Greenwood residents were killed, and more than 8,000 were left homeless. Seventy-five years passed before an official investigation occurred. Cooper's illustrations are infused with a personal connection. Not only did he grow up in Tulsa, but Cooper also heard his grandpa's stories of surviving the events. The powerful photo spread on the endpapers documents the destruction and smoking ruins. Cooper's final illustrations of Tulsa's Reconciliation Park offer a bit of hope. Weatherford's author's note provides additional background. VERDICT This moving account sheds light on shameful events long suppressed or ignored. All collections should consider this title's value in providing historical context to current conversations about racism and America's ongoing legacy of white supremacy.--Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato

Copyright 2021 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

A once-thriving Black community was destroyed, and the story of how it happened went untold for decades.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was emerging as a thriving oil town, and African Americans worked to establish communities in the face of discrimination. The separate neighborhoods that grew out of segregation meant that Black businesses sprang up to serve those who could not frequent White establishments. The African American neighborhood of Greenwood had so many it became known as 'Black Wall Street, ' with an impressive range of services and opportunities. The tenuous nature of Black prosperity was reinforced, however, when a White woman accused a Black man of assault. White mobs, unable to reach the suspect, descended on Greenwood, looting the businesses and burning the community to the ground. With no protection or assistance from law enforcement, all that the residents had achieved was lost. Further, it took 75 years before an official investigation was launched. Author Weatherford and illustrator Cooper join forces to present this important story with sensitivity and care for younger readers. Weatherford's measured prose depicts the events in a cleareyed, age-appropriate narrative. Oklahoma native Cooper's muted palette and oil-erasure style effectively portray first the achievement and then the devastation that followed. The author's and illustrator's notes provide valuable insight and context, as does the rear endpapers' photograph of the massacre's aftermath.

A somber, well-executed addition to the history as the incident approaches its 100th anniversary.—starred, Kirkus Reviews

— "Journal"
Carole Boston Weatherford
Carole Boston Weatherford, a New York Times best-selling author and poet, was named the 2019 Washington Post-Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award winner. Her numerous books for children include the Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, illustrated by Floyd Cooper; the Caldecott Honor Books Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, and Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, which was also a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book; the critically acclaimed Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, illustrated by Eric Velasquez; and the Newbery Honor Book BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom, illustrated by Michele Wood. Carole Boston Weatherford lives in North Carolina.

Frank Morrison has won numerous awards for his picture book illustration, including two Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards. He previously collaborated with Carole Boston Weatherford on Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Modern Retelling of the Classic Spiritual; R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul; How Sweet the Sound: The Story of Amazing Grace; and The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop. Frank Morrison lives outside Atlanta.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Carolrhoda Books (R)
Publication date
February 20, 2021
BISAC categories
JNF053140 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Social Topics | Prejudice & Racism
JNF025180 - Juvenile Nonfiction | History | United States/State & Local
JNF053210 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Social Topics | Violence
Library of Congress categories
African Americans
20th century
Race relations
Violence against
Tulsa (Okla.)
Greenwood (Tulsa, Okla.)
Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Okla., 1921
Texas Bluebonnet Master List
Selection 2022 - 2023
New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children's Books
Selection 2021
Caldecott Medal
Honor Book 2022
Coretta Scott King Book Award
Winner 2022
Coretta Scott King Book Award
Winner 2022
Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
Honor Book 2022
ALSC Notable Children's Book
Selection 2022

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