It was the worst spasm of racial violence in the history of the United States. And it has been largely ignored in history.
The Greenwood district in Tulsa was the richest black neighborhood in the country, known at the time as “The Black Wall Street.” In 1921, a riot began over the Memorial Day weekend when a young black man was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. Angry whites gathered at the jail while some black men, hearing rumors of a lynching, also headed to the jail. At that point, history and myth merge and what happened to set off the crowd is unknown.
At one point, planes were employed to strafe the crowds of black women and children fleeing for their lives. Property damage was immense. More than 10,000 blacks were left homeless and an unknown number had been killed. Official statistics put the number of dead at 36 with about 800 seriously injured. Some believe the actual number of dead is in the hundreds.
The state established a commission in 1996 to investigate exactly what happened. At that time, the commission found evidence of three possible mass grave sites, but the evidence had been inconclusive.
A more recent survey using far more sophisticated technology may have given state authorities enough evidence to begin an archaeological dig at some of the sites.
At least three locations in Oaklawn Cemetery and another along the Arkansas River should be examined further for unmarked burials from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre, a team of scientists said Monday night during a public presentation at Carver Middle School.
The sites were among those surveyed in October by the Oklahoma Archeological Survey using three subsurface scanning techniques.
The two most likely sites, said archaeologist Scott Hammerstedt, are both in Oaklawn Cemetery. One is a roughly 25-by-30 foot area that Hammerstedt said appears to have been a pit of some kind. The second is a series of anomalies in an area identified by historians as a likely area for the burial of “the original 18” — 18 black male massacre victims identified in funeral home records and newspaper reports as having been buried in Oaklawn.
Experts say that the number of bodies that might be discovered at these sites would be in the tens, not hundreds.
Nevertheless, to close what is still an open wound in Tulsa, investigators need to find out as much as they can about what happened.
If the scientists and Mayor G.T. Bynum thought the public oversight committee would be excited by the news that the search appears to at least have a starting point, they were wrong.
Instead, for more than an hour, Bynum, his staff and some of the presenters were grilled about why Newblock Park was discounted as a potential site after October’s survey, why Rolling Oaks Cemetery in south Tulsa had not yet been examined and why a box of photographs a former Tulsa police officer said in a 2002 interview that he saw at the Police Department in 1973 has not been found.
Interest in the Tulsa massacre was sparked by the fantasy HBO series “The Watchmen,” which made the massacre a large part of the story for several characters.
Judging by the reaction of people to the findings of the survey, there is still a lot of distrust of officials and their accounts of the investigations. It appears this distrust is well-founded. The people of Tulsa had been lied to for decades and even in the post-civil rights era, there appears to be an aversion to finding the truth.
The 1996 commission recommended the following:
- Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot;
- Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa race riot;
- A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa race riot;
- Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood district; and
- A memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa race riot.
The Oklahoma legislature established a college scholarship fund, but the other recommendations have not been acted on. The issue of reparations is a political hot potato and isn’t likely to be agreed to in the near future.
But finding additional bodies in mass graves could lead to the creation of a memorial for the victims — both white and black. That might start a true healing process for an historical event that even today escapes notice.