Young readers, untold stories, and a lauded UNCG alumna
Did you know that a century ago a mob of armed, White citizens attacked the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing close to 300 African Americans and displacing more than 8,000 residents, and there was no official investigation for 75 years?
UNCG alumna Carole Boston Weatherford did, and she wrote a children’s book about it. The lauded book recently has received several of her field’s high national honors.
“Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” brings attention to one of the largest acts of racial violence in our nation’s history.
For Weatherford, bringing important historical events to the fore, for young people, is a life’s work. She focuses on young students, on expanding knowledge – particularly of Black history – and on using history to transform the future.
Weatherford earned her MFA here at UNC Greensboro. Greensboro, a locale full of Black history and Civil Rights history, is the home of the Woolworth Lunch Counter, the setting of the pivotal Greensboro Sit-Ins of 1960. She would tell that story in “Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins” with illustrator Jerome Lagarrigue in 2005.
Back in the early 1990’s, as Weatherford recalled in an email interview, she found herself to be the only Black student in her UNCG MFA program, and that “posed another set of challenges” to her education. But Carole wouldn’t be deterred. In her ’92 thesis dedication, she thanked Tom Kirby-Smith, UNCG creative writing professor, for “helping her find the beat.” And then she got to work.
Her first book, published three years later, was the highly praised “Juneteenth Jamboree,” with illustrator Yvonne Buchanan.
She has gone on to author over 50 books and she has received dozens of awards. Her books have won three Caldecott Honors, multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, and honors from the American Library Association. She has also received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the Ragan-Rubin Award from the North Carolina English Teachers Association, and the Nonfiction Award from the Children’s Book Guild.
In 2020, she received the McIver Lifetime Achievement Award from the UNCG Alumni Association. Her papers are now preserved in UNCG’s Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.
“Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” received the Coretta Scott King Award. It was a Caldecott honor book and a runner-up for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal. It was named a 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, it was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and was a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Nonfiction Honor Book.
The celebrated illustrator for this book, Floyd Cooper, knew the story well. His grandfather was a survivor of that massacre. Floyd Cooper, who recently passed away, told reporters that he never heard about the massacre during history lessons or classes as he grew up in Tulsa.
Weatherford tirelessly works to ensure that almost-forgotten stories or unheard voices are heard. By gearing her books towards our nation’s young readers she is actively working to ensure a better future for them, by simply ensuring they have an understanding of the past.
Weatherford encourages students to “listen to the music of your soul and don’t be afraid to follow your own drumbeat.” It’s apt advice from a “New York Times” bestseller who was challenged at UNCG three decades ago to find her own beat, and she has done just that.
By Noel Cox ’20 MA