2007 was Oklahoma’s Centennial year. Celebrations on November 16, 2007, focused on the 100th anniversary of Oklahoma’s inaugural day of statehood in the United States of America.

Oklahoma Centennial Sign

One of the many reasons I am enthused to help facilitate and lead our statewide digital storytelling project, Celebrate Oklahoma voices, is that historically the “voices” included in school history textbooks have been sharply limited and tightly controlled. Oklahoma has a very colorful history, and while all the voices of our state need to be remembered, I personally think not all of the opinions expressed by those “voices” need to be celebrated. One example of opinions which do not deserve to be celebrated are the racist views of Oklahoma’s ninth governor, William H. Murray. Interestingly, the only reference to Murray’s racist views and political proposals in the December 20, 2007 version of the English WikiPedia article about him is the following sentence under the heading “Oklahoma Politics:”

On November 16, 1907, President Roosevelt accepted the Oklahoma Constitution and Oklahoma was admitted to the Union as the 46th state. On the same day, Murray was inaugurated as the Speaker of the Oklahoma House, a position in which he often opposed the progressive work of Commissioner of Charities and Corrections Kate Barnard and where he pushed for Jim Crow laws.

Jim Crow laws, as students of US history can hopefully recall, enforced the ethic of “separate but equal,” and were formally dismantled in the 1950s and 1960s in an epic struggle known now as the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968). Unfortunately, although racist laws have officially passed into the annals of U.S. history, racism and discriminatory views persist in many homes and communities. Our nation HAS come a long way in a short period of time with respect to race relations and equal treatment of human beings, but we still have a long way to go. It is interesting as well as historically instructive to learn that the WikiPedia version of the political life and views of Oklahoman William H. Murray is (at least as of December 20th last year) far from complete.

William H. Murray

My wife has been reading Timothy Egan’s book “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” and shared the following passage with me yesterday that she read on pages 108-109:

The new governor of Oklahoma gave people hope, but he also tried to get them to hate. William Henry David Murray had been elected in 1930 after scandal drove the last two governors from office, both of them impeached. With a campaign slogan that railed against what he called “The Three C’s — Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons,” Murray won by a huge margin, 301,921 votes to 208,575. He was known as “Alfalfa Bill” for his ceaseless advocacy of agriculture as the cornerstone of society, Alfalfa Bill said anything could grow in Oklahoma. His daddy, David, had made wine not long after grabbing a piece of dirt in the 1889 Sooner land rush; his Murray Model was so well-known President Teddy Roosevelt had declared it “the bulliest wine of the land.” Alfalfa Bill was himself a bully, but these times needed such a man, he said. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, in 1869, Murray ran away from home at the age of twelve, worked on a series of farms, and then got involved in populist politics. He bought a newspaper, educated himself so well he passed the bar, and made a name as president of the Oklahoma statehood convention in 1906. Oklahoma, he said at the time, could be a great state only if blacks were separated from whites and kept in the proper jobs– in the fields or factories. Next door, in Texas, lawmakers had institutionalized that sentiment forty years earlier with Reconstruction laws that said blacks could work only as field hands. Blacks were inferior to whites in all ways, Murray said, and must be fenced from society like quarantined hogs. At the start of the twentieth century, many people felt otherwise, but Alfalfa Bill tried to set his view into the proposed constitution. At the same time, he welcomed even black support, if done properly.

“I appreciate the old darkie who comes to me talking softly in that humble spirit which should characterize their actions and dealings with the white man,” he said to wide applause at the constitutional convention. Murray hated Jews as well. Blacks had some virtues, but Jews had none, in his view. Nor did he like the handful of Italians who had come to the High Plains. The “low grade races” of southern Europe, he said, were a threat to civilization. Oklahoma become the forty-sixth state only after President Theodore Roosevelt forced Murray to remove the segregationist planks of the constitution. Murray was furious; he never let go of his grudge against the Roosevelt family.

The fact that William Murray’s ardent struggle to include segregationist planks in the Oklahoma state constitution is not included in the December 20, 2007, English WikiPedia article version for him is noteworthy for several reasons. To my knowledge, this fact was not included in any of the discussions my son had last year in third grade about the Oklahoma centennial. While no one in our public schools is likely to suggest Murray’s racist views should be celebrated, we certainly could celebrate the fact that we have come a long way in 100 years from the “wide applause” his discriminatory views invited at the 1907 Oklahoma constitutional convention. It would be interesting to learn how many students of Oklahoma history are aware of the racist views of our 9th governor. Thank goodness President Theodore Roosevelt insisted on removing “those planks” from the Oklahoma constitution.

The history included in our school textbooks is often incomplete. A resource like WikiPedia, as well as web 2.0 authored content on the “open web” more generally, provides learners around the globe with unprecedented opportunities to access, share, and further develop diverse perspectives on a limitless array of topics.

I shared this situation with a former educator today. His response was, “That’s an example of why school librarians don’t want students using and citing WikiPedia.”

My response to that opinion was and is, “Quite the contrary. This example is a vivid demonstration of why school librarians SHOULD permit students to use and cite WikiPedia.”

Some librarians have strong, negative opinions about WikiPedia, in my view, because they do not understand WikiPedia. Like so many other topics and issues relating to digital technologies, they may have heard “bad headlines” about WikiPedia and not yet explored in depth (as all advocates for media literacy and information fluency should, of course) the veracity of those claims. To address possible misconceptions about WikiPedia, I often recommend that people watch Jimmy Wales’ presentations “How a ragtag band created Wikipedia” on TEDTalks as well as his longer (and more in-depth) discussion about WikiPedia on Fora.TV from April 2006 titled, “Vision: Wikipedia and the Future of Free Culture.”

All nations, states, and peoples have “skeletons in their closet” of which many in current society are likely not proud. Rather than keep those skeletons in the closet, however, I think it can be worthwhile to appropriately take them out and intellectually examine as well as critique them. In the great hourglass of history, the U.S. Civil War itself was but a few moments ago. It’s an eye opener to read how rabidly racist and openly fascist one of our former state governors was. The 20 Dec 2007 English WikiPedia article version for William Murray does acknowledge his fascist patterns of action by noting:

By the end of his administration in 1935, Murray had called out the National Guard forty-seven times and had declared martial law over thirty times.

It fails to note, however, as Timothy Egan does in “The Worst Hard Time,” that one of these uses of the Oklahoma National Guard to impose martial law was to prevent blacks from celebrating Emancipation Day. Egan wrote on page 110:

…when blacks tried to hold an Emancipation Day parade in a park in Oklahoma City, the governor imposed martial law on the city and ordered his guard troops to shut them down.

Some people fear democracy in the United States has been and continues to be aggressively subverted. Oklahoma in the 1930s certainly must have seemed like a world removed from ours today in many ways.

Let us dedicate ourselves to the continual study of history, so that we may avoid its mistakes as we move rapidly forward into the future.

Incidentally, if you were wondering about the current location of Murray’s birthplace in Texas, the 20 Dec 2007 English WikiPedia article for William H. Murray reveals that “Toadsuck, Texas” was renamed Collinsville in the 1880’s. If the town had not been renamed, the high school mascot certainly might have looked interesting.

I have revised the first sentence of the second paragraph under “Oklahoma Politics” of Murray’s WikiPedia article to include a reference to his pro-segregation stance in the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Previously that sentence read:

On November 16, 1907, President Roosevelt accepted the Oklahoma Constitution and Oklahoma was admitted to the Union as the 46th state.

It now reads:

On November 16, 1907, President Roosevelt accepted the Oklahoma Constitution after segregationist planks were removed which Murray had staunchly supported and defended at the Constitutional Convention. Oklahoma was admitted to the Union as the 46th state.

Should students be utilizing and citing WikiPedia in their research projects? ABSOLUTELY. Of course they should NEVER use a single source, and they should ALWAYS question and verify the veracity of information they find both online and in printed texts.

My son’s copy of his district’s elementary school social studies textbook will NEVER be updated with additional information about Oklahoma’s ninth governor. In contrast, the WikiPedia article about him was JUST UPDATED. I’m sure more updates will follow. To see updates that are made next, check out the article’s history page. I need to learn more about citing sources in WikiPedia, and will do so before some summer workshops I’m hoping to share about using wikis in the classroom and WikiPedia specifically.

Long live web 2.0, and WikiPedia’s ethic of providing universal access to the sum of human knowledge.

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  • Great post, Wes. If we can’t face the facts that our forefathers were human, how much less will we be able to accept the flaws in our thinking and change for the better.

    Miguel

  • edh

    Nice post! I linked to this and excerpted the bit on librarians and Wikipedia on my wiki, Cyber64edu. Thanks for the interesting object lesson on teaching history!

  • This was an absolutely excellent read! Not only was it interesting to learn more about American history (which I, as a Norwegian, don’t know that well I’m afraid), but this article also raised several interesting points about the use and possibilities of what is often referred to as “web 2.0 tools” in education. Your reference to the reply of this former educator also indicates, to me at least, that we are facing some attitudes towards “new” technology that I would say constitute some kind of cultural hurdles towards progress, not only in education but in society at large. I see the same lack of trust or even fear towards technology with some of my colleagues at our university. Educators who are not willing to learn new things, isn’t that some kind of contradiction of terms?

    Keep up the good work! Your blog is always interesting to follow 🙂

    -r

  • Pingback:   UPDATE: To Wikipediate or Not to Wikipediate - That is the Question by ITGS Online()

  • Wes,
    I agree with you about the use of Wikipedia in primary and secondary classrooms. My feeling, and I have seen similar thoughts from the creaters of the wiki, is that anytime a student is allowed to use an encyclopedia they should be allowed to use Wikipedia. If only primary sources are allowed, obviously the wiki should not be used. The college level is much the same, though Wikipedia makes a great jumping off point. Do the initial search in Wikipedia and then look at the sources sited in Wikipedia, just like you would in the encyclopedia. Why don’t people understand that difference?
    Interesting information about Alfalfa Bill. I have heard it said, “If you are not a crook, then don’t run for office in Oklahoma.” So many of our governers have shaded pasts that we often glaze over. Isn’t this a lot like sweeping the dirt under the rug?
    Another reason why we should never rely on only one source of information. Check & recheck your information, I try to teach this to my students, but if many of our adults don’t understand this information, how long will it take our kids to understand?

  • Tami

    I find the idea that people would be opposed to students using as many sources as possible. If we are not teaching students to be critical about the information that they are presented with, I believe that we are doing them a grave injustice. I think that Wikipedia and the Web 2.0 tools are fabulous ways to bring in perspective to our classes. I think this one speaks to the idea that students should be talking about textbooks and what information may or may not be included, and how perspective influences discourse. I think more teachers should present multiple perspectives/ sources of information such as you have presented.

  • Dukein OK

    Bravo! A wonderful example of the benefits of a more ecumenical approach toward education. Perhaps the best role of schools is to function as publicly-finanaced curators of developmental information instead of special-interest driven thought-shapers. I say this because history is too-often “edited” to reflect the narrow sensibilities of a handful of legislators (often the beneficiaries of gerrymandering) and gubenatorially-appointed commissions who are indirectly, but effectively, steered by major political party contributors. No system is perfect, but as with our court system, historical truth is usually uncovered when two competing interests battle it out on a level playing field. Wikipedia, with its curated contributions from any number of diverse sources, comes closer to to that level playing field than an appointed textbook committee.

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