On Monday I sat among hundreds in the auditorium of Carver Middle School, anxious to hear the panel of academics on the stage update us on a much-anticipated investigation. We were on the same ground where, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, screams of horror ricocheted off buildings as bullets rained down like hell’s fire from Standpipe Hill.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was the site in one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks ever perpetrated on U.S. soil. Deemed the Black Wall Street of America by Booker T. Washington, the Greenwood District boasted 36 square blocks of black economic progress just 58 years after the emancipation of their ancestors. In one night the neighborhood was pillaged and set ablaze, its people massacred. A rumor that a young black man had assaulted a white woman in an elevator provoked enough white Tulsans to turn to racial violence. When the ashes settled and the smoke cleared, charred bodies littered the streets of a ruined community that seemed nearly impossible to rebuild in the shadow of the Jim Crow era. According to a state-commissioned report released in 2001, upwards of 300 people are thought to have died during the massacre.
The mention of the tremendous loss still stings my family generations later, and my community has been demanding atonement for 98 years. My family lost more than $50,000 during the massacre. I do not know whether any of my family members perished or whether they were buried in one of the mass graves that were rumored to hold the victims of those days. Our family history was nearly forgotten until I began to ask questions about my father’s father’s side and discovered that the Cherry family once owned several buildings in the Greenwood District that were destroyed by the fires. Community members tried to file insurance claims, but they had fallen short when white-owned insurance companies alleged that their policies didn’t cover riots. That’s before realizing that it was a massacre.
For decades both black and white oral histories on the whereabouts of these mass graves were passed down from one generation to the next. They would serve as the clues that pointed a team of modern archeologists, forensic scientists and a public oversight committee to four possible mass grave locations: Oaklawn Cemetery, Booker T. Washington Cemetery (now known as Rolling Oaks), Newblock Park and “The Canes,” an area near the Arkansas River just southwest of downtown.
In October 2018 Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum announced that the city would reexamine the potential mass graves that were identified in the 2001 report. A year later, the Oklahoma Archeological Survey from the University of Oklahoma conducted scans at three of the four locations. And this week, the leading scientists from OU, Scott W. Hammerstedt and Amanda L. Regnier, revealed that they had found anomalies that are consistent with mass graves at “The Canes” as well as in multiple sections of Oaklawn Ceremony, including a 25-by-30-foot trench.
“It very much looks to me like a human-dug pit of some sort,” Hammerstedt said. “The size of it is indicative of what could be a common grave associated with the massacre. It’s the leading candidate that I’ve seen.”
Excavation will be necessary to determine whether each body is a victim of the massacre, a Spanish influenza outbreak that occurred in 1919 or some other event. The city is developing a plan for how to properly identify and inter any remains that are unearthed.
Admirably, Bynum has played a more active role in the pursuit of truth about the 1921 race massacre victims than any previous Tulsa mayor. But whether truth will lead to justice remains in question. In response to a comment about reparations, Bynum said, “Folks need to know the goal of this [meeting] is to clarify the truth of what happened.” Doubling down on the implication that reparations would not be up for discussion, he said, “One of the issues that they ran into — when they did this state commission before — was when people started talking about reparations too early on. And that spooked a lot of politicians — that killed the process. We’re not going to get into that.”
“We’re not going to get into that” were the most disappointing words — the ones that stuck and stung the most. For decades many white Tulsans denied our claims that mass graves filled with black bodies actually existed. At every turn, this story was repressed. Schoolchildren didn’t learn about it in schools until recently. We just didn’t get into that. Neither the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre nor their families have received any restitution, and although Monday’s meeting felt like progress, the mayor’s comments were a painful reminder that justice in the form of reparations may still be out of reach for the descendants of this massacre.
Nevertheless, history was made in this American city that finally had the courage to face its past. This week my community moved a step closer to confirming what so many have known in our bones for generations: something bad did happen in Tulsa in 1921.
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