Tulsa Mayor Reopens Investigation Into Possible Mass Graves From 1921 Race Massacre

Tulsa’s mayor has reopened an investigation into whether there are undiscovered mass graves from a 1921 race massacre that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. “We owe it to the community to know if there are mass graves in our city,” said Mayor G.T. Bynum. “We owe it to the victims and their family members. We will do everything we can to find out what happened in 1921.”

In the 1920’s, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was home to what many called the nation’s Black Wall Street. The city’s Greenwood District was home to a number of black millionaires and black-owned businesses. Despite the prosperity of the area, racial tension remained high, and all it took was a rumor to ignite the town. On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old black boy named Dick Rowland entered an elevator alone with a white girl. Moments later, the girl screamed, and when the elevator doors opened, Rowland ran. The girl was unharmed, but the town rumor mill soon had citizens convinced that Rowland raped the girl. He was later apprehended and held at the city jail.

When a mob arrived at the courthouse, an altercation between an armed white man and an unarmed black man resulted in the white man being shot. In retaliation, the mob — which some estimates put at nearly 10,000 people — decided to march on the Greenwood District and seek retribution. By the next day the mob had destroyed 35 city blocks and all 300 black-owned businesses, rendering 10,000 black residents homeless, and murdered at least 36 people, although some estimate the number is closer to 300.

In the aftermath of the riot, it is believed that the bodies of murdered black citizens were placed in unmarked mass graves, and it is these graves Mayor Bynum is hoping to find. His team includes Bob Brooks, a retired state archaeologist who worked on the investigation when remains were first discovered in 1998, and Clyde Snow, one of the world’s preeminent forensic anthropologists.

Their investigation will use testimony from witnesses present during the riots, as well as existing archaeological data collected during the initial inquiry in 1998, to identify possible sites for mass graves. The team is focusing its search on areas of the existing Booker T. Washington cemetery and the city dump, each site containing “anomalies” that they say are consistent with signs of mass graves.

“We’ve been asking for this for years. But the answer was always, ‘The city doesn’t have the money to do it,’” says activist Kristi Williams. “This is a true step toward reconciliation.”