This summer, even as some Oklahomans commemorated and reflected on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the entwined histories of racism and the fight for justice that have unfolded across the state and nation, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed into law House Bill 1775, which seeks to prohibit all school employees from instructing that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” The legislation’s proponents claim to be safeguarding children from discomfort and unpleasantness.

In refusing to acknowledge, much less claim “responsibility,” for the darker chapters of Oklahoma’s history, the bill’s authors are preventing a full retelling of the past in the state’s classrooms. But only such a complete retelling reveals the noble efforts of Black and Indigenous Oklahomans, dating back even before statehood, to fight for educational equality and a fairer and more just state. Learning this history promises a generation of strong thinkers, with skills for engaging one another and the historical literacy that can help build better communities.

State legislators and nativists alike point to the Land Run of 1889 and the “opening” of land to non-Indigenous settlement as a historical starting point worthy of celebration by schoolchildren.

But long before White farmers and business executives rushed to claim the “unassigned land,” dozens of tribes of varying sizes and thousands of enslaved and newly freed African Americans populated the territory that today is Oklahoma. They even banded together to challenge attempts by White settlers to push them further to the margins.

After the Civil War, all-Black towns grew in Indian and Oklahoma Territory as people formerly enslaved by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes settled together for mutual protection, economic security and the possibility of more.

Like countless other Black families, the Wilson family relocated to the newly created Oklahoma Territory in 1890 as news traveled of the opportunity to own property and attend integrated schools. Yet, integrated schools only lasted for a short time in Guthrie, where the Wilsons settled. The county soon enacted segregation policies that forced Black families to attend separate schools.

But the Wilsons refused to accept this new reality. Instead, they took their fight for educational justice to the territory’s courts. And they won the first battle in court, in Wilson v. Marion in 1892, when a lower court ruled that this policy was discriminatory. Ultimately, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the decision in Wilson in Marion v. Territory (1893), but the Wilson family’s commitment to their children’s educational opportunities and those of their Black neighbors planted the seed for future Oklahomans to seek change when confronted with bigotry.

Following Wilson, the question remained as to what educational opportunities would be available to Black residents. The passing of Senate Bill Number One by the newly established state of Oklahoma in 1907 reminded Black residents of the segregationist views that would inform their day-to-day lives, including in schools. Even so, Black Oklahomans continued to create their own schooling opportunities, including within the growing numbers of all-Black towns.

In Langston, local leaders such as E.P. McCabe touted the flourishing schools and their Black educators to encourage others to relocate to the city. Before the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, Black residents established two schools for their community’s children, including Booker T. Washington School in 1919. The newly built three-story building would serve as a hospital and relief center in the aftermath of the massacre, reminding the population of the place of education in their survival as a community.

In January 1946, this quest for the best possible education led Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher to apply for admission to the University of Oklahoma’s law school. University officials recognized that Sipuel Fisher’s academic background qualified her for admission to the law school. Yet they denied her application in large measure because of the constraints imposed by state statutes that prohibited schools from establishing “mixed-race” classrooms at the risk of fines.

Rather than integrate the university, state officials attempted to establish a new law school overnight to maintain their separate system. Knowing the battle could be a long one, Sipuel Fisher — a graduate of Langston University — Oklahoma’s only historically Black college and university (HBCU) — refused to accept anything less than what was being offered to her White classmates and continued the fight. She joined a test case on behalf of the NAACP to challenge this legal segregation at the heart of Oklahoma’s educational system.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948) granted Sipuel Fisher admission to the law school, even if still on a segregated basis, opening the door for generations of students to attend the state’s flagship university. This victory was part of the legacy of Black community activism that began with the creation of Oklahoma’s all-Black towns and the emphasis placed upon educating their children.

That legacy was evident again in 1958 when schoolteacher and community leader Clara Luper led one of the nation’s earliest successful sit-ins alongside Oklahoma City youths, ending segregation at a local drugstore.

These cases were not atypical. Instead, dating back to the 19th century, countless Black and Indigenous Oklahomans made an indelible mark on the state and nation as they fought for justice and equality through their schools and universities. And this history hasn’t been forgotten. On the contrary, Oklahoma celebrates it as a reminder of the struggles encountered by its Black residents as they fought against the racial injustices of the “past.”

Yet, HB 1775 leaves little room for discussions about why Clara Luper, John Wilson and Ada Louis Sipuel Fisher engaged in legal struggles and acts of civil disobedience — whitewashing the state’s history of bigotry and segregation, which their activism aimed to curb.

These efforts to sanitize the history books threaten to deprive future generations of students of an opportunity to understand how Oklahoma history is the history of Black and Indigenous communities fighting for change and justice, sometimes with the support of state and local courts, White politicians and neighbors, and sometimes despite efforts to block their progress.

While this history isn’t all good, confronting the past misdeeds of those who stood in the way of these activists is no different from vaccines, eating vegetables and countless other uncomfortable or distasteful things that adults force children to do, because the benefits are high. Learning the complex, real history of Oklahoma — including the good and the bad — will teach the state’s children how to become thinkers, how to engage with one another and how to use the lessons of the past to build more just communities.