Unspeakable: Carole Boston Weatherford's 2021 BGHB Nonfiction Honor Speech

Gratitude overflows for those who inspired and encouraged me to tackle this tough topic. The late Tom ­Feelings, a pioneering illustrator, planted the seed when he showed me drawings for a still-unpublished work-in-progress about lynching. More than a decade later, my mother passed down family lore about a relative who was lynched in 1939 in Virginia.

In 2018, I sent Floyd Cooper this message:

“You and I should do a picture book on Black Wall Street. I envision a book-length poem, perhaps starting with ‘Once upon a time.’ What do you think?”

“OMG!” Floyd replied. “I must do this. I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Of course, I already knew that.

Two months later, over lunch, sister authors Kelly Starling Lyons and Gwendolyn Hooks urged me to go for it. I began drafting the manuscript that night. And, the next morning at breakfast, I discussed the work-in-progress with editor Carol Hinz, who invited me to submit the finished manuscript. My ever-supportive agent, Rubin Pfeffer, did just that.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2021 BGHB Nonfiction winners.]

As a children’s book author, I am committed to setting the record straight. For too long, textbooks and school curricula have omitted or whitewashed chapters of American history that expose white supremacy. Thus, few adults, let alone children, are aware of events like the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Just over a century ago, Tulsa’s Greenwood ­community — home to Black Wall Street — was the nation’s wealthiest Black district. But in May 1921, Greenwood was attacked by a white mob. Afterward, local white leaders suppressed the facts about the incident, and not until seventy-five years later did the truth come to light. Police had stood by as the mob torched Greenwood, leaving three hundred dead and eight thousand Black residents homeless. In today’s money, the economic toll would approach two hundred million dollars.

In May 2021, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, the oldest survivor of the ­massacre, bore witness to Congress about the terrors that were seared into her memory.

“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”

Floyd and I set out not only to document the massacre but also to evoke Black Wall Street’s past glory. Into his cinematic art, Floyd channeled stories that his grandfather, a teenage s­urvivor of the massacre, told him as a boy. Unspeakable is at once a lamentation for a place and the testaments of those who thrived, survived, or perished there.

Unspeakable may be the truth that Floyd was born to tell. When I got word of this Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award in June 2021, I immediately reached out to him. My message ended with a question: “What should we collaborate on next?” No reply. Within weeks, Floyd was gone.

I accept this honor with mixed ­emotions. I am saddened that Floyd is not here to enjoy the accolades, but I feel blessed that we could produce a book worthy of our ancestors and of young readers, who deserve and demand the truth.

“It is finished.” (John 19:30)

From the January/February 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB21. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Carole Boston Weatherford. Photo courtesy of Carole Boston Weatherford.

Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford received a 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award for Picture Book for Standing in the Need of Prayer (Crown), illustrated by Frank Morrison. She won the 2022 CSK Author Award and a 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda), illustrated by Floyd Cooper. She has written many other children's books, including 2021 Newbery honoree Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom; 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Author honoree Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (both Candlewick); R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul (Atheneum); and Freedom in Congo Square (Little Bee). She teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. (Photo by Gerald Young.)

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