As It Happens

Tulsa seeks mass graves from 1921 race riot that left up to 300 dead

The mayor of Tulsa says he plans to re-examine whether mass graves hold remains of those killed in one of the nation's worst race massacres nearly 100 years ago.

Local research points to 3 possible sites containing the remains of those killed in the massacre

This photograph shows an African-American man being detained during the 1921 Tulsa race riots. (Tulsa Historical Society & Museum)
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Mechelle Brown said she's glad her city finally has a mayor "courageous enough" to re-open the investigation into whether mass graves hold the remains of hundreds of black people killed in one of the U.S.'s worst race massacres nearly 100 years ago.

In 1921, a white mob attacked a prosperous, predominantly African-American neighbourhood in Tulsa, Okla., known as Black Wall Street, setting fire to hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes and killing up to 300 people, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. 

As the 100th anniversary approaches, community leaders have pushed for justice for the dead.

Mayor G.T. Bynum said on Facebook on Tuesday that he's talking with archeological experts to come up with minimally invasive ways to look for mass graves in three spots that local research suggests may hold the long-lost remains. 

Brown, who works at the Greenwood Cultural Center and has interviewed survivors of the massacre, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about this little-known piece of American history. Here is some of what she had to say.

Tell us how this began.

It's a story that was all too common during that period: the inflammatory accusation that a young black man had assaulted a white woman in an elevator in broad daylight in downtown Tulsa.

When he got into the elevator, as he did every day as a shoeshine boy, he was given special permission to go into the Drexel Building and get water and use the restroom.

Every day he encountered Sarah Page on the elevator.

On this particular day, May 30, 1921, after the elevator doors closed and Dick Rowland and Sarah Page are alone, there's a scream from the elevator, the elevator doors open and Dick Rowland takes off running.

African-American men are led down the street by white men with guns during the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. (Tulsa Historical Society & Museum)

He's later arrested and taken to the jail house/courthouse and the accusation is made by a businessman working in the building that came running to see what had happened that Sarah Page had been assaulted.

The story circulated throughout Tulsa throughout the day. It went from claims that she had been assaulted to she was sexually assaulted. By the end of the day, they were claiming that she had been raped. 

And this infuriated a mob of angry whites who were determined to take matters into their own hands. 

A white man approached a black man with a gun and said, "What are you gonna do with that gun?" He said, "I'm gonna use it if I have to."

They begin to struggle over the gun and during the struggle, the gun goes off. 

At that point, they forget all about Dick Rowland and Sarah Page. There's an all-out battle in front of the courthouse. Blacks retreat to the Greenwood district, and whites slowly advance toward the Greenwood District.

By the following day, more than 35 square blocks of property has been completely destroyed, a thousand homes burned to the ground, 300 black-owned businesses completely destroyed.

And not only were they shooting, but they were also dropping nitroglycerin bombs from airplanes that had been borrowed from a local oil company. 

This picture shows two white men standing across the street from a burning building during the Tulsa race riot of 1921. (Tulsa Historical Society & Museum)

What do we know about what happened to those remains?

What we know is that the entire population of the African-American community was 10-12,000. Six thousand of those people were held in interment camps — three separate sites that were used to incarcerate men, women and children. Entire families held captive.

That left 4-6,000 people unaccounted for. And we know that there were people that fled.

So there's no way of knowing exactly how many people lost their lives, but we do believe that the number is even higher than the 300 that has been recognized. We do know that there were several mass grave sites that were set up.

A lot of that is based on oral histories, and what we have been told from not only our survivors ... but also from whites that wanted to call and speak anonymously about the dump trucks that would drive through the streets of the Greenwood distinct, pick up dead bodies and then go dump them in the Arkansas river.

This old postcard shows an African-American man standing in the rubble of what was his home after the Tulsa massacre. Written in print are the words: 'All That Was Left of His Home After the Tulsa Race Riot, 6/1/1921.' (Tulsa Historical Society & Museum)

I was reading some of the comments that were on the Facebook page of the mayor ...  people writing that they'd never heard of this. ... How is it that so few people know the history of this story?

Following the events of the riot, and during my conversations with some of the survivors back in 1996 through 2001 or so when we were identifying survivors, we asked them that very question. Why did they not share this history with their children and grandchildren?

Some of the comments were that they didn't want to pass on those feelings of anger and resentment and bitterness that they felt.

And you have to remember that African-Americans came back to a community that was completely devastated. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs.

This photo, taken after the 1921 massacre, shows what remained of the Williams Dreamland Theatre on Greenwood. (Tulsa Historical Society & Museum)

But there were more churches in North Tulsa than all of Tulsa combined. They had a strong foundation in their faith, and they decided, almost as a community, that they were going to simply put this into God's hands and focus on moving forward.

Whites didn't want to talk about it either because many of them participated in the event. They wanted to forget about it. They moved on, went back to work, went back to their normal lives as if nothing had happened.

So today we have a community where people have been born and raised here and know very little about the events of the riot-turned-massacre on Black Wall Street.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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