Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has announced that the city will reopen an investigation into whether there are mass graves from the 1921 race massacre that left hundreds of African Americans dead.
“We owe it to the community to know if there are mass graves in our city. We owe it to the victims and their family members. We will do everything we can to find out what happened in 1921,” he told the Washington Post.
On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black man, boarded an elevator while working in a building in downtown Tulsa. The elevator was operated by Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl. When a store clerk heard a scream, he ran to the elevator to find Ms. Page and, thinking she’d been attacked, called police.
Ms. Page told police that Mr. Rowland had startled her by grabbing her arm but she did not want to press charges. Rumors spread, and the story quickly morphed into a rape allegation. Police arrested Mr. Rowland at his home in Greenwood, the city’s prosperous Black community, and jailed him at the courthouse. The next night, a mob of white men sought to lynch him, but the sheriff and deputies defended the jail, along with 30 armed Black men from Greenwood.
Members of the mob returned with firearms, and several whites were killed or wounded in the ensuing gunfight. When the Black men retreated to Greenwood, white rioters attacked the town, burning 40 city blocks, killing up to 300 Black residents, and leaving more than 10,000 homeless. Greenwood, known as “Negro Wall Street” and one of the wealthiest Black communities in the country, was destroyed.
No rioters were convicted and survivors received no compensation for lost property. After 80 years, Oklahoma approved funds to redevelop the area and build a memorial in 2001.
A Century Later
The Washington Post reports that survivors recounted that bodies were tossed into mass graves.
As the city prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre, the mayor said the city will use new technology to reexamine three sites that were first identified as possible mass graves 20 years ago.
In 1998, state archaeologists searched for mass graves at Newblock Park, which was a dump in 1921, Booker T. Washington Cemetery, and Oaklawn Cemetery. They found anomalies at each site “that merited further investigation” and the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 recommended excavation, but then-mayor Susan Savage said she was concerned about disturbing graves, and the excavations never happened.
Mayor Bynum said that this time, the city will excavate bodies if they are found. Forensic analysis will be done to determine if there were gunshot victims.
Rev. Robert R. A. Turner, senior pastor of Vernon AME Church, one of the only structures in Greenwood to survive the massacre, pressed the mayor to excavate the sites and open cold cases for victims. “I stated they would not have the land had it not been for the massacre when 10,000 people were displaced,” Rev. Turner told the Post. “I said, ‘This is blood land.’ The Greenwood District is a crime zone.”
Local activist Kristi Williams told the Post that the community has been asking for this investigation for years. “This is a true step toward reconciliation,” she said.