Day 6

Nearly a century later, researchers begin search for mass graves linked to Tulsa massacre

It’s estimated that 300 Black people were killed by white rioters in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, a neighbourhood of Black-owned businesses, but the true number is unknown. The 1921 massacre is widely considered to be America’s deadliest racist attack.

'This is an unprecedented step, but it's also a first step,' says historian

Archeologists and historians began excavating at the site of a potential unmarked mass grave from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre on Monday. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World/The Associated Press)
Listen10:33

In hopes of better understanding a long neglected history, researchers have begun excavating areas of Tulsa, Okla., that they believe are sites of unmarked mass graves for victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

It's estimated that 300 Black people were killed by white rioters in Tulsa's Greenwood district, a neighbourhood of Black-owned businesses, but the true number is unknown. The massacre is widely considered to be America's deadliest racist attack.

"There was a very strong oral tradition in both the African American and white communities in Tulsa, which held that riot victims were buried in unmarked graves at Oaklawn [Cemetery]," said Scott Ellsworth, a historian of the Tulsa massacre and chair of the committee helping to run the dig.

Oaklawn Cemetery is where the researchers began their search for the mass graves on Monday, using ground penetrating radar and other devices. 

"Knowing how many people died in the event is very important for history's sake," said Ellsworth.

"But beyond that ... these people were buried without their loved ones having a chance to identify them or to say goodbye. They were buried, you know, the equivalent of being thrown away."

Scott Ellsworth has studied the history of the Tulsa race massacre and is an author. He is also part of the team co-ordinating the excavation and search for mass graves. (Submitted by Scott Ellsworth)

The possibility of mass graves was first investigated in the late '90s, based on historical records and later eyewitness accounts. In 2001, the Oklahoma state government signed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act, acknowledging that the events occurred but offering no reparations for survivors or their descendents.

While the team members have yet to find any human remains, they have expanded their search area, according to The Associated Press.

Michelle Brown, program director of the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa which commemorates the history of the Greenwood neighbourhood and the massacre, said the search comes with mixed emotions.

"I regret that this did not happen while many of our survivors were still living and able to see this take place, but it is somewhat rewarding to know that we are moving forward and that this is finally taking place," she told Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong.

Black Wall Street the promised land

Tulsa's Greenwood district was commonly known as Black Wall Street, a nickname given to the region by noted African American author and educator Booker T. Washington.

"This was a promised land for African Americans," said Brown. "Some of our survivors had said that everyone had their own business. Everyone was making money."

Michelle Brown is a program co-ordinator and tour guide at the Greenwood Cultural Center. (Greenwood Cultural Center)

The city of Tulsa was segregated at the time, and Greenwood was founded out of a need for businesses to serve the city's Black citizens. As prosperity within the community grew, however, so did anger among white residents, said Brown.

It came to a head over Memorial Day weekend in May 1921 when Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting a white woman, Sarah Page.

The 19-year-old man was arrested, and rumours that he would be lynched began spreading through the community.

'In cold blood'

"The African American community had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched that evening by the white mob.... Some estimates have that there were thousands of whites that had gathered [at the jail house] by that evening," she told Armstrong.

As the crowd grew, a group of Black men arrived at the scene but was encouraged to leave when a police sheriff assured the crowd that officers had the situation under control. 

Eventually, a gunshot was fired when a white man attempted to disarm a Black man, and "an all-out initial battle began in front of the courthouse," said Brown.

Eventually, white rioters descended upon the Greenwood district — many deputized and joined by a predominantly white police force — and according to witness testimony, Black residents were killed "in cold blood," Brown said.

WATCH | Why many Americans don't know about the Tulsa race massacre:

Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights lawyer representing the last living survivor of the massacre in Tulsa, says Black history "has been eradicated from U.S. history.'" 7:40

Excavation an unprecedented step

The exact number of Black residents killed during the massacre remains unknown, but it is likely beyond the estimate of 300 deaths, said Brown.

"Because mass graves were used, because bodies were dumped in the Arkansas River, we will really never know how many people have lost their lives."

Though the exact site of the mass graves remains unknown, historian Ellsworth said that they have uncovered clues in their search. 

In one section of Oaklawn Cemetery, where crews are currently digging, a significant amount of fill dirt was uncovered. Ellsworth said it may have been added 10 to 15 years after the massacre in order to fill a sinkhole.

They're also investigating two other sites at the cemetery, including one based on the testimony of an eyewitness who claims they saw the burials take place. The historian said he's "confident" that he and his team will find evidence of the graves.

"This [excavation] is an unprecedented step, but it's also a first step," Ellsworth said. "I'm hopeful that we get lucky this week, but this could take some time."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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