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Tulsa to Search for Mass Graves From the Race Massacre of 1921

During the pogrom, a white mob killed an estimated 300 black Tulsans. According to eyewitnesses, the dead are buried in unmarked mass graves in Greenwood

Tulsa in flames (Wikimedia Commons)
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On May 31, 1921, white men with weapons waited outside a Tulsa, Oklahoma, courthouse. Inside, a 19-year-old black shoeshiner named Dick Rowland was being detained for allegedly attacking a white elevator operator. Fearing that Rowland would be lynched, black men armed themselves and showed up at the courthouse to counter the white men’s show of force. Soon enough, a fight broke out. Outnumbered, the black men retreated to Greenwood—then a thriving black neighborhood known as Black Wall Street—and the white men took chase.

What followed was a bloody massacre that continued on into the next day. The racially motivated incident killed more than 300 black Tulsans and displaced an estimated 10,000. Before it was all over, at least 35 city blocks burned to the ground. Survivors recounted stories of bodies being tossed off bridges and into unmarked mass graves. Now, reports DeNeen L. Brown at The Washington Post, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has announced plans to investigate those accounts by searching for the unmarked graves.

“We owe it to the community to know if there are mass graves in our city,” Bynum tells Brown. “We owe it to the victims and their family members. We will do everything we can to find out what happened in 1921.”

The renewed interest in the dark chapter of Tulsa's history occurred following the publication of another article by Brown late last month. As the centennial of the massacre approaches and Tulsa explores how it will memorialize this significant anniversary, the mass grave issue has come to the forefront.

For years, survivor accounts and family lore spoke about the mass graves, and in 1997, the state of Oklahoma first enlisted a committee to investigate the claims. The following year, investigators used ground-penetrating radar at three suspected sites: Newblock Park, which was a city dump in 1921; Booker T. Washington Cemetery; and Oaklawn Cemetery. Anomalies were found at each site that “merited further investigation,” according to the committee. The Oaklawn site, which was pointed out by an eyewitness who said they saw wooden boxes full of corpses there, even showed signs of a trench underground.

The committee recommended digging at the Oaklawn site, but officials were concerned that the excavation would disturb other graves in the cemetery, and the excavation never happened.

At a recent public statement about redevelopment in North Tulsa, including the Greenwood area, local pastor R. A. Turner called on the mayor to commit to looking for the graves, open cold cases from the massacre and consider reparations for the surviving families. The mayor did not address the cold cases and reparations, but he did commit to investigating the graves.

The mayor tells Kevin Canfield at the Tulsa World that Brown’s expose and the public questioning isn’t what led to his call for a new investigation. He says that he’s had an abiding interest in the massacre, and that six years ago he met with the former state archaeologist in charge of the 1998 investigation. “I always thought, if I am ever mayor and in a position to have executive authority, that I would do something about it,” he says. “Because I think if there are mass graves there, the citizens of Tulsa deserve to know and the victims and their families deserve to know it.”

The new investigation will have three stages: First, investigators will use new technology try to figure out if there are indeed mass graves at the three sites. If there are, they will then try to determine if they are mass graves from 1921 or if they are unmarked paupers' graves. If graves are then linked to the massacre, the bodies will be exhumed and forensically examined to determine the cause of death.

According to the Tulsa Historical Society, no one was ever charged for their role in the 1921 massacre. In fact, once martial law was declared and the National Guard moved in, they started by rounding up almost all the black residents of Greenwood who were detained for days in holding centers. While the Red Cross aided the survivors, local government officials did not extend aid to Greenwood for rebuilding and the black community was left to face the aftermath on its own. Because authorities designated the event a “Race Riot,” insurance companies were not obligated to pay out any claims, and the once-prosperous neighborhood was never able to fully recover.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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