Tulsa to Move Forward in Search for Mass Graves From 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre

City officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma announced they are moving forward with plans to dig for mass graves that may have been used to dispose of victims of the city’s Black Wall Street Massacre. Over the course of two days in 1921 mobs of angry white residents set businesses and homes in Greenwood ablaze, the city’s thriving Black neighborhood, also known as Black Wall Street.

During the city’s Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee meeting on February 3, city officials announced that archaeologists will conduct a test excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery in April, ABC News reported. Officials said that an initial geophysical investigation identified a “large anomaly consistent with a mass grave” at the sexton section of Oaklawn Cemetery.

The test excavation will establish whether or not there are human remains, the nature of the interments and obtain data to determine the next steps. Additional geophysical investigations will be conducted in Oaklawn and The Canes, a section of land by the 11th Street bridge that is used as a homeless encampment, after initial results “warranted additional examination,” officials said in a statement on February 4.

“The only way to move forward in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is by seeking the truth honestly,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said in a statement. “As we open this investigation 98 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to uncover. But we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process – filling the gaps in our city’s history, and providing healing and justice to our community.”

At the meeting, state archaeologist Dr. Kary Stackelbeck said that the results from the test excavation will help determine the next steps taken by the investigation.

“This is critical here because this is a very complicated process,” Stackelbeck said, according to ABC News. “We know that there is something that has generated differences in the soil that’s generating a different signal in the soil there and it seems very consistent with a large intentionally excavated hole with straight sides on it.”

Stackelbeck said that surveys indicated there could be something buried inside the hole but it is unclear if it’s human remains.

“The geophysical data does not tell us whether there are people in there, how many people would be in there, if they’re buried in coffins, if they’re not buried in coffins,” she said. “We simply cannot glean that information from the geophysical data.”

What was the 1921 Race Massacre?

The neighborhood of Greenwood, which was also known as the “Black Wall Street,” was an oddity in the segregated South. The neighborhood was founded following the Civil War and developed a thriving Black business scene thanks to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s.

“Greenwood epitomized Black entrepreneurism in the face of Jim Crow,” businessman and activist Ricco Wright told The Los Angeles Times. “It showcased Black self-sufficiency and it showcased Black excellence.”

Hundreds of African Americans were killed in Greenwood between May 31 and June 1,1921, when a mob marched in with shotguns and Molotov cocktails. For more than 16 hours, the mobs killed an estimated 300 people and drove thousands more from their homes and businesses.

“Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes – now a dozen or more in number – still hummed and darted here in there with the agility of natural birds of the air,” eyewitness Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer who worked on the Black Wall Street, wrote in a 10-page manuscript that was discovered in 2015. White people used private planes to bomb the Black neighborhood, Franklin’s grandson and historian John W. Franklin told Smithsonian Magazine.

The reason for the violence? Rumors had spread that a Black man had attempted to sexually assault a white woman inside an elevator. A 2001 report, released by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, determined that the man had most likely tripped and bumped into the woman, who then screamed and ran away.

“It was the frustration of poor whites not knowing what to do with a successful Black community, and in coalition with the city government were given permission to do what they did,” Paul Gardullo, a museum curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture said in 2016.

Oklahoma officials initially placed the death toll at just 36, but historians later amended it to an estimated 300. Another 9,000 Blacks were left homeless, The Los Angeles Times reported. Property damage is estimated at around $1.8 million, or $26 million today.

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About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.