Officials start digging up mass grave for Tulsa Race Massacre victims

Grim search for Tulsa Race Massacre victims begins on milestone anniversary as archeologists dig up a mass grave in Oklahoma cemetery where 18 black men were buried

  • Archeologists started digging up a mass grave in Oklahoma on Tuesday on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre 
  • The group began exhuming the 12 unmarked coffins in an area of Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa after first discovering them back in October last year
  • The area where the exhumations are taking place is where funeral home records indicate 18 black men who were killed in the 1921 massacre were buried 
  • Authorities have not yet been able to confirm if the remains found in the 12 coffins are those of massacre victims 
  • After the remains are exhumed, forensic teams are optimistic they will be able to collect DNA and, in some cases, determine a cause of death
  • Officials believe the process could take weeks, or even months, due to the fragility of the remains and the size of the mass grave 

Archeologists have started digging up a mass grave in Oklahoma on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in a bid to identify the remains of at least 12 people believed to have been among those slaughtered.

The group began exhuming the 12 unmarked coffins in an area of Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa on Tuesday after first discovering them back in October last year.

The area where the exhumations are taking place is where funeral home records indicate 18 black men who were killed in the 1921 massacre were buried.

Authorities have not yet been able to confirm if the remains found in the 12 coffins are those of massacre victims but most of the confirmed black victims were recorded as having been buried at that cemetery.  

After the remains are exhumed, forensic teams are optimistic they will be able to collect DNA and potentially determine a cause of death.

Archeologists began exhuming the 12 unmarked coffins in an area of Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa on Tuesday on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre

The area where the exhumations are taking place is where funeral home records indicate 18 black men who were killed in the 1921 massacre were buried

Officials believe the process could take weeks, or even months, due to the fragility of the remains and the size of the mass grave. 

Archaeologists estimate that as many as 30 bodies could actually be buried in the mass grave. 

The true death toll of the Tulsa Race Massacre remains unknown with hundreds thought to have been killed in the terrifying two day massacre that started on May 31, 1921.

Historians estimate that as many as 300 black people died in the massacre after a white mob descended on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, which was nicknamed Black Wall Street.  

The massacre erupted after a group black men went to the Tulsa courthouse on May 31 to defend a young African American man accused of assaulting a white woman.  

They found themselves facing a mob of hundreds of furious white people. Tensions spiked and shots were fired before the black men retreated back to Greenwood.  

At dawn the next day, white rioters stormed Black Wall Street and killed black residents, looted business and burned building and homes to the ground.

More than 10,000 were left homeless in the aftermath and over 100 businesses were destroyed. According to the Tulsa Race Riot Report of 2001, an estimated $1,470,711 was incurred in damage – equal to about $20 million today. 

Authorities have not yet been able to confirm if the remains found in the 12 coffins are those of massacre victims but most of the confirmed black victims were recorded as having been buried at that cemetery

After the remains are exhumed, forensic teams are optimistic they will be able to collect DNA and potentially determine a cause of death.

Officials believe the process could take weeks, or even months, due to the fragility of the remains and the size of the mass grave

Workers were spotted on Tuesday at the cemetery preparing the site for the excavation

Victims’ bodies – some burned beyond recognition – were unceremoniously buried during that time.

A commission was formed in 1997  to try to give a fuller account of what happened after rumors of mass graves persisted.

It announced in January 2000 that a search would be conducted for victims’ remains but it reversed course a few months later and decided against excavating any of the sites where bodies were thought, or rumored, to be buried. 

Tulsa’s current mayor, G.T. Bynum, who is white, announced in 2018 that the search would happen.

Subsequent ground scans at Oaklawn and Rolling Oaks cemeteries showed anomalies suggesting they could be mass graves. 

The search got underway last year and researchers in October found at least 12 sets of remains in coffins at Oaklawn.

Historians, archaeologists and anthropologists looked at the remains inside the coffins but covered them back up for further study at a later date.

The search resumed on Tuesday.

It was the same day President Joe Biden was in Tulsa to mark the 100th anniversary of the Black Wall Street Massacre. 

Workers measure between headstones at the site where excavation started at Oaklawn Cemetery on Tuesday

Workers join hands at the site before the excavation got underway on Tuesday in the search for Tulsa Race Massacre victims

Historians estimate that as many as 300 black people died in the massacre after a white mob descended on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, which was nicknamed Black Wall Street 

White rioters stormed Greenwood and killed black residents, looted business and burned building and homes to the ground 

‘My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre,’ Biden said.

‘Among the worst in our history but not the only one. And, for too long, forgotten by our history. 

‘Just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing. Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can’t be buried no matter how hard people try.’

‘The only way to build a common ground is to truly repair and to rebuild. I come here to help fill the silence. Because in silence, wounds deepen. As painful as it is, only in remembrance do wounds heal. 

President Joe Biden called for the Tulsa Race Massacre to be remembered: ‘My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre’

‘We just have to choose to remember. We memorialize what happened here in Tulsa, so it can be. Also, it can’t be erased. We know here, this hallowed place, we simply can’t bury pain and trauma forever. And at some point, we are reckoning, an inflection point. Like we’re facing right now as a nation.’

He urged Americans to learn from it.

‘We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn’t impact us today because it does still impact us today. We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides,’ he said.

In his remarks, Biden listed a litany of crimes committed against the residents of Greenwood over the two-day massacre: 1,100 black homes and businesses were destroyed, insurance companies rejected claims damage, and 10,000 people were left destitute with the homeless placed in internment camps.

The destruction set back income and class mobility for a generation of residents of an historically black neighborhood that was growing in influence. The neighborhood was decimated with the racial fallout lingering to this day.

‘Imagine what could have been done for black families in Greenwood, financial security and generational wealth,’ Biden said.

‘What happened in Greenwood was an act of hate and domestic terrorism with the through line that exists today still.’  

THE 1921 TULSA MASSACRE: THE FIREBOMBING OF ‘BLACK WALL STREET’ IN GREENWOOD 

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of 10,000 white men descended on the community of Greenwood in Tulsa and attacked black residents and burned businesses.  

Many of them had weapons and some were deputized by city officials. It led to the worst act of racial violence in US history, with more than 800 people taken to hospital and 6,000 black residents interned in buildings across the city.

The final death toll has never been confirmed, with estimates ranging between 75 and 300 fatalities. Around 10,000 black residents were left homeless and the firebombing caused more than $1.5millon in damage.  

A group of National Guard Troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African American men to the detention center at Convention Hall

After World War I, Tulsa was recognized for its affluent African-American community known as the Greenwood District.  

The community was often referred to as the ‘Black Wall Street’ because of its thriving businesses and residential area, but in June 1921, the community was nearly destroyed during the Tulsa Race Riot. 

The area was fraught with racial and political tensions with servicemen returning from fighting in Europe, the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan and the memory of the end of the Civil War in 1865.

There was also an economic slump in Tulsa, that drove up unemployment, and increased tensions between white veterans and professional, well-educated African-Americans who populated Greenwood. 

In 1919, the ‘Red Summer’, industrial cities in the Midwest and Northeast experienced significant race riots because of the tensions.   

The events leading up to the riot began on May 30, 1921, when a young black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator with a woman named Sarah Page. 

The details of what followed vary from person to person and it’s unclear what actually happened, but Rowland was arrested the next day by Tulsa police, with reports suggesting Rowland assaulted Page.

The police questioned Page and determined Rowland assaulted her, even though a written account has never been produced backing her claims.  

During the Tulsa Riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot

Subsequently, a report in the Tulsa Tribune dated May 31, 1921 was published that night with an accompanying editorial stating that a lynching was planned for that night.

Hundreds of men then gathered around the jail where Rowland was being held. They encountered a group of black men who were supporting Rowland. 

This started a confrontation between black and white armed men at the courthouse, with the white men demanding that Rowland be lynched while the black men tried to protect him.

During a struggle between two men in the mobs over a gun, shots were fired and a white man was shot, causing the the African-American group to retreat to the Greenwood District.

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by an estimated 10,000 white rioters, who flooded into the streets shooting residents. Planes also reportedly dropped incendiary bombs on the area.

Many of the white mob had recently returned from World War I and trained in the use of firearms, are are said to have shot Black Americans on sight.

Pictured: Part of Greenwood District burning during the Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, June 1921. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The picture caption above says ‘Burning of Church Where Ammunition was Stored-During Tulsa Race Riot-6-1-21’

In addition, more than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed, and nearly 10,000 people were left homeless. 

The riots lasted for two days, and Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops were called in to Tulsa. 

During the riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot – mostly Black Americans -and more than 800 people were treated for injuries.

Bodies were buried in mass graves while families of those who were killed in the riots were held in prison under martial law according to Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian, in December.

The families of the deceased were never told whether their loved ones died in the massacre, or where they were buried, and no funerals were held. 

Until the 1990s, the massacre was rarely mentioned in history books, and in 2001, the Race Riot Commission was organized to review the details of the deadly riot. 

 Source: Tulsa History.org

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