Library of Congress Changes Subject Heading of the Tulsa Race Riot to the Tulsa Race Massacre

One hundred years ago, after the arrest of a Black man who was accused of assaulting a White teenage girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma,, rumors spread through the city that the man would be lynched. A group of armed Black men went to the city jail to prevent a lynching. A confrontation between White and Black groups ensued. After the initial incident, a large group of armed Whites destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood of the city, which was known as Black Wall Street. Incendiary devices were dropped on the neighborhood by occupants of private airplanes. More than 10,000 African Americans were left homeless and some estimates place the death toll as high as 300.

For many years, this event was called the Tulsa Race Riot, which gives the implication that African Americans were the perpetrators of much of the violence. But most historians now agree that a more accurate description of the events that occurred in 1921 is the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) Change Proposal Task Force, a group of university libraries information professionals concerned with historically accurate and culturally appropriate naming processes, submitted a proposal to the Library of Congress last year to change the official subject heading for the “Tulsa Race Riot” to the “Tulsa Race Massacre.” Library of Congress Subject Headings are an integral part of the world’s most widely used library indexing tool. Subject terms facilitate searching and many times are used to find important resources on a topic when researching in online library catalogs.

The impetus for the LCSH Change Proposal Task Force was the members’ shared belief that naming matters: the words used to describe people and events affect perceptions and, in turn, those perceptions have concrete implications for social justice. For the Library of Congress to accept this change, the LCSH Change Proposal Task Force had to produce justification that “massacre” was not only the historically accurate term, but also the predominant term currently in use.

“The vision of the task force was to work across University Libraries toward a unified goal, one rooted in social justice, and to employ language in such a way as to create a more accurate description of a horrendous event,” said Todd Fuller, a task force member and curator of University of Oklahoma Libraries’ Western History Collections. “The updated subject heading now will be used in library catalogs in the U.S. and internationally.”

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