September 29, 2020

The Massacre That Destroyed Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’

TULSA, Okla. — Incited by a salacious and largely fabricated news story about a young Black man assaulting a white girl, a lynch mob showed up at the Tulsa city jail, where he was being held. A group of African-Americans, many of them soldiers returned from fighting the First World War, rushed over to help guard the young man. Fighting broke out, then shooting.

The incident touched off a racist rampage. White rioters descended on the city’s Greenwood District, a Black community considered so affluent that Booker T. Washington, the author and orator, had called it “Black Wall Street.” Soon they were aided by a local National Guard unit with a water-cooled Browning machine gun. According to eyewitness accounts, planes circled overhead, shooting people as they fled and dropping incendiary devices.

While the young man at the jail was able to leave town and was later exonerated, the entire Black township lay burned to its foundations. City officials, law enforcement and guardsmen rounded up thousands of surviving residents and forced them to stay in a hastily arranged internment camp as the bodies of as many as 300 people were dumped in unmarked graves.

The massacre lay hidden for decades. Educators did not teach it. Government offices did not record it. Even archival copies of some newspaper accounts were selectively expunged.

On Monday, though, forensic investigators broke ground at the possible site of a mass grave in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, a few blocks from where much of the carnage occurred.

“There was a curtain of silence drawn to keep this quiet,” said Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa historian who wrote a history of the massacre, “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” The dig defies the official silence, he said, which was an attempt to hide the crime.

“This is a major step,” Mr. Ellsworth said. “This is unprecedented.”

On Monday morning, the forensic team assembled by the city and the state began to remove earth from an 8- by 4-foot test dig in an effort that was expected to last about a week. The site lies within what ground-penetrating radar suggests might be a much larger pit, focusing on what is described as an “anomaly” in the ground that could mean the earth there was disturbed. The site lies in the unmarked section of the cemetery.

The dig is only an initial step, with further steps planned depending on what is found.

“We don’t know what we will find,” said Lesley Rankin-Hill, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. Ms. Rankin-Hill, who is part of the investigative team, said the anomaly could be human remains, or it could be a box of debris — the instruments that were used to scan the area could not tell.

“We have analysis that shows there was a big disturbance in the dirt where we were told people were buried,” she said.

ImageTwo of the only known headstones in Oaklawn Cemetery for victims of the race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.
Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

A 2001 report from a truth commission convened by the state notes numerous accounts showing that for years, despite official silence, local oral history from both Black and white people pointed to the Oaklawn site. One of those cited is a Salvation Army Major, O.T. Johnson, who said he oversaw diggers burying 150 bodies in Oaklawn. Similarly, the wife of a Black mortician, Eunice Cloman Jackson, recounted in the report that her stepfather was part of a crew of 55 gravediggers burying bodies in Oaklawn. The report also records the story of a young boy, Clyde Eddy, who saw large wooden crates containing several burned bodies next to workers digging a trench at the cemetery.

“While Mr. Eddy did not directly see the victims being placed in this trench-like area, it is reasonable to assume that its purpose was for a mass grave,” the report states.

Also suggesting the Oaklawn site are the few records of known victims, which listed 39 dead — 13 white and 26 Black. Of the Black victims, 21 were interred in Oaklawn, according to the report.

If the test site uncovers human remains, the diggers expect to halt their work. No exhumation is likely to occur at this phase, Ms. Rankin-Hill said. Even during the test dig, the site is closed to public viewing, although the dig will be recorded on video.

“There is a lot of protocol,” Ms. Rankin-Hill said. “It’s technically a crime scene they are going into.”

Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

When he announced the investigation, Mayor G.T. Bynum of Tulsa also called the undertaking a crime investigation and called for the process to be “transparent.” Part of the transparency is an oversight commission.

Chief Egunwale Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa, was one of many Tulsans who pressed for the inclusion of the oversight committee. He is one of the few community leaders who will be allowed to visit the dig site in person. He said the city faced a conflict of interest because, though the massacre occurred nearly a century ago, the city government was part of the crime.

“You are looking for a crime and that means there is a criminal,” Mr. Amusan said. “That investigation may turn up something. You start to find out who was involved.”

Also on the oversight committee is the Rev. Dr. Robert R.A. Turner, pastor of the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greenwood, a church which was all but destroyed in the fires and rebuilt shortly after. Mr. Turner visited the site on Sunday, the day before the dig, and prayed for the victims who might be buried there.

“We have a huge segment in the African-American community that has been advocating for this for decades, since the massacre in 1921,” he said. “We’ve been advocating for this since the bodies went missing.”