Almost a century after white supremacists razed Black Wall Street to the ground, the city of Tulsa opened an investigation into the massacre motivated by racism that killed 300 people.
History textbooks, understandably, fail to document every significant moment. Even the narratives they do tell are those of a White America — books tell stories of Black and Indigenous people as if they are obstacles America needed to overcome instead of hardships faced by an American people.
In 1921, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, descended into chaos. After a lynch mob sniffed wind of fabricated news that a young Black man assaulted a White woman, they showed up at the Tulsa city jail to exact revenge. People rushed over to help the Black man, and soon enough, the fighting escalated to shooting. White rioters stormed into the city’s Greenwood District—known as “Black Wall Street” — and called in a local National Guard unit. Planes flew overhead, dropping weapons to start a fire. They razed Black Wall Street to the ground.
City officials and law enforcement herded the surviving residents of the district into camps and dumped the bodies of the dead — estimated to be about 300 — into unmarked graves; then, they buried the story of Black Wall Street.
Researchers now look to excavate the past and shed light to the massacre of 1921. On Monday, a team of forensic investigators, scientists, archaeologists, and forensic anthropologists broke ground at Oaklawn Cemetery, where ground-breaking radar detected signs indicating a mass grave.
Several descendants of massacre survivors huddled outside the graveyard in the light rain to watch the historic moment. J. Kavin Ross, whose great-grandfather owned a business destroyed in the massacre, was one of them. He is a photojournalist and teacher who dedicated years of his own time interviewing survivors of the massacre.
“I’ve waited for this day for over two decades to find out the truth of Tulsa’s public secrets,” said Ross. “A lot of people knew about it but wouldn’t tell about it.”
Mayor G.T. Bynum of Tulsa ordered the investigation, who acknowledged the city faces a crime investigation and called for the process to be “transparent.”
“I don’t want my kids growing up in a city where we might be walking around on mass graves, and we haven’t done everything we could to find them and identify the victims,” Bynum said.
Chief Egunwale Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa, is part of the oversight committee tasked with the investigation. He believes the city faces a conflict of interest because, even though it happened almost a century ago, city officials orchestrated the massacre.
Although researchers said their radar findings held promise, the only way to learn more is to see who buried who in that grave. The excavation will take up to two weeks.
Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida, is hopeful that any bones found preserved well enough to identify victims of the massacre and connect them to living descendants.
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