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Tulsa begins search for ‘Original 18’ Black people killed in 1921 race massacre

The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner watches as a crew searching for mass graves from Tulsa's 1921 race massacre performs a test excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery in July. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)

A nearly century-old funeral home ledger lists 18 Black people who were killed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

The White-owned funeral home billed the County of Tulsa in June 1921, charging $25 for the burial of each Black body. The ledger contains the name of Joseph Miller, who was a chauffeur and lived with his wife, Allie, on East Hillside Street. The cause of Miller’s death: gunshot wounds.

Also listed: Curly Nevesters Walker, the son of Napoleon Walker, who was about 30 years old. He lived with his wife, Myrtle, and they roomed at 307 and 1/2 North Elgin. Cause of death: gunshot wound.

John Wheeler, who was 63 and a bank porter at First National Bank, lived at 405 North Elgin. Wheeler was caught in crossfire as a White mob descended on an all-Black community of Greenwood, a community so prosperous it was called Black Wall Street. The cause of death listed for Wheeler: gunshot wound.

The bill for burial of 18 “Negroes” was sent by Stanley McCune Mortuary, a White-owned funeral home in South Tulsa, to Tulsa County just days after the massacre. When demand for payment was sent, bodies of Black people still lay in the streets, more than 1,200 houses still smoldered from the fires set by White mobs, and Black survivors, who had been rounded up at gunpoint, were being held in camps throughout the city. Historians believe as many as 300 Black people were killed during the massacre, and 40 square blocks of the Greenwood community were burned.

'They was killing Black people'

The ledger, one of few paper documents that survived the massacre, wasn’t discovered until 1998. It lists the names of 13 of the 18 Black people the funeral home buried. But in its apparent haste, the funeral home failed to identify five Black victims of the massacre it buried that day. The bill also failed to explain exactly where the bodies were buried, creating a nearly-100-year-old mystery.

“We know the names of 13 individuals. We know very little about them,” said Scott Ellsworth, chair of the physical investigation subcommittee of the Tulsa Mass Graves Oversight Committee, which is leading the search for bodies connected to the massacre.

Sometimes the ages and addresses were included, he said. Sometimes they were not.

In July, the city made history when it began digging for the missing bodies of Black people killed in the massacre. The initial excavation for possible mass graves in the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery found no human remains. In September, the city decided to expand its search.

During the second excavation, which will begin Monday, Oklahoma archaeologists and forensic scientists plan to excavate a section of Oaklawn known as the “Original 18” site. Officials believe the 18 Black people listed on the funeral home ledger may be buried here in unmarked graves.

The “Original 18” site is located near the tombstones of Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard, which say they were killed on June 1, 1921, and are the only known marked graves of massacre victims in the cemetery.

Ellsworth, the author of “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” said the committee decided to look next for the “Original 18” because “it is the one site in town I can say with 100 percent confidence that we know massacred African Americans were buried. We know by virtue of the fact that there are two headstones from the massacre victims for Eddie Lockard and Reuben Everett.”

Records show that Lockard, whose family operated a cafe in Tulsa, died of a gunshot wound to his neck. His body was found in an aviation field.

The archaeological team and forensic scientists also plan to search the potter’s field area of Oaklawn Cemetery, where an oral history from Clyde Eddy, a White witness to the massacre, told the commission in 1999 that when he was a child, he took a shortcut across the cemetery and encountered workers burying bodies of Black people.

The Tulsa race massacre began May 31, 1921, after Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, who was working as a shoe shiner in downtown Tulsa, was accused of assaulting a White woman in an elevator. His arrest sparked a confrontation between “angry white vigilantes gathered at the courthouse intent on lynching the shine boy” and armed black men intent on protecting him, according to a 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

After a shot was fired, White mobs descended on Tulsa’s all-Black community of Greenwood, known as “Black Wall Street” for its affluence. “By the time the violence ended,” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “the city had been placed under martial law, thousands of Tulsans were being held under armed guard, and the state’s second-largest African American community had been burned to the ground.”

Survivors reported seeing bodies tossed into the Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to account for the dead. No White person was ever arrested for the violence. For decades after the massacre, few people spoke of what had happened.

A white Republican mayor seeks the truth about Tulsa’s race massacre a century ago

In 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) ordered the city to search for potential mass graves after a Washington Post story detailed the unresolved questions surrounding the massacre. Bynum told The Post it is imperative that the city find out whether there are mass graves as the city prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, a member of the Tulsa Mass Graves Oversight Committee and pastor of historic Vernon AME Church in Greenwood, said the city needs to make amends for the massacre and find the bodies of Black people who were buried without proper funerals.

“The Original 18 are the names they know, and there is credible evidence they were buried in Oaklawn and the funeral home billed the city,” he said.

Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, told the Oversight Committee that if human remains are found, the remains will not be removed from the ground to document ancestry and cause of death.

“We can tell ancestry if there are skulls, it can be detectable without removing remains,” Stubblefield said. “We can clean them enough to document trauma. We can determine sex and approximate age. We will try to bring clarity to the unknown, unmarked burials. If there are signs of trauma and gunshot wounds, that will give us circumstantial evidence these are the individuals we are interested in. But first let us find the remains.”

Read more Retropolis:

A century-old race massacre still haunts Tulsa as Black Wall Street gentrifies

Tulsa Race Massacre survivors file lawsuit, demanding ‘repair’ for 1921 attack

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