No, History Will Not Remember

Dan Canon
I Taught the Law
Published in
4 min readJun 1, 2021

A white supremacist mob lays waste to Wilmington, NC (image from North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources)

No one told me about Tulsa until I was in my 30s. I suspect I’m not the only one. Most Gen-Xers and older millennials, even those of us who went to college, didn’t have the story of how “Black Wall Street” was razed to the ground by white supremacists in our curricula. I had an advanced degree and a civil rights law practice before I heard about it for the first time.

Now, on its 100th anniversary, the Tulsa Massacre is finally part of our popular national narrative — for now, anyway. That is to say: White folks who happen to be floating in certain media bubbles know about it. It gets coverage on NPR. A few documentaries are available for streaming. People write about it for publications that are still printed on slick paper. How long we retain this information in our collective databanks, and what we choose to do with it, remains to be seen.

The fact that no one told us about Tulsa might reasonably lead conscientious white people to ask: What else are we missing?

For example, I didn’t know that white supremacists overthrew Wilmington, North Carolina’s elected, multiracial government in 1898 until shamefully late in life. I learned about the coup after I started my teaching career, from a textbook on constitutional litigation I require my law students to buy.

The story of Wilmington is so appalling that it’s hard to justify its omission from any history of the late nineteenth century. A white mob gathered for a reading of a “White Declaration of Independence,” which asserted that white people “will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.” The next day, 2000 armed terrorists destroyed the town’s newspaper, forced the mayor and the entire police department to resign, and put the city’s integrationist leaders on trains, with instructions never to return.

An Atlantic article from 2017 describes how the history of Wilmington was “nearly lost.” For the majority of us, it was lost, and is still. Where were we supposed to learn about Wilmington? Or Tulsa? Or Clinton, Mississippi? Or Nat Turner, or George Boxley, or Denmark Vesey? Sure, the information is out there now, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Must someone go to law school, sign up for a constitutional litigation class, and buy a $200 book before a teacher explains the…

Dan Canon
I Taught the Law

Civil rights lawyer, law professor, and high school dropout. Writes about the Midwest, class struggle, and the untold horrors of the legal system.