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Tulsa mayor reopens investigation into possible mass graves from 1921 race massacre

A drone image of Oaklawn Cemetery, where some believe there is a mass grave from a 1921 race massacre. (Shane Bevel/for The Washington Post)
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Tulsa’s mayor said Tuesday that the city will reinvestigate whether there are mass graves from a century-old race massacre that left hundreds of African Americans dead.

The announcement comes in the wake of a Washington Post story about the unresolved questions surrounding one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

As Tulsa prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the rampage, Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) said in an interview, “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.”

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For decades, few talked about the rampage that began May 31, 1921, when a white mob descended on Greenwood, a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street. The mob set fire to hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes, killing more than 300 black people and leaving more than 10,000 homeless. Survivors recounted bodies tossed into mass graves.

The mayor said the city will reexamine two Tulsa cemeteries and a former dump — all places that state investigators and archaeologists first identified as possible mass grave sites in 1998. The city plans to use new technology to see whether there is evidence that bodies were dumped there. The mayor said they will investigate the sites to determine whether they are “paupers’ graves or mass graves.”

He will work with retired state archeologist Bob Brooks, who worked on the investigation in 1998. “We want to do minimally invasive work. If bodies are there, we want to be respectful,” he said. Bynum said forensic work “would determine whether they were gunshot victims.”

If bodies are there, they will be excavated — a step the city refused to take two decades ago.

The mayor made his decision in response to a question from the Rev. Robert R. A. Turner, senior pastor of Vernon AME Church, one of the only surviving structures from the 1921 bloodshed.

The mayor had just finished giving a statement about economic development in North Tulsa, which includes Greenwood.

Turner had read The Post story, he said, and was inspired to press the mayor on Greenwood’s destruction.

“I stated they would not have the land had it not been for the massacre when 10,000 people were displaced,” Turner said. “I said, ‘This is blood land.’ The Greenwood District is a crime zone.”

Turner said he asked Bynum: “Will you commit today to having an excavation and opening cold cases of people who lost their lives and reparations for people who lost homes?”

Bynum, he said, did not address the question of reparations or opening cold cases.

Even so, Tulsa City Council member Vanessa Hall-Harper was happy with the re-examination of the possible mass graves.

“I think it is awesome,” said Hall-Harper, who had been pushing for a reinvestigation.

In 1998, seventy-seven years after the massacre, authorities began investigating the claims of mass graves. Investigators used electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar to search for evidence at Newblock Park, which operated as a dump in 1921, Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Oaklawn Cemetery.

At each site, they found anomalies “that merited further investigation,” according to a report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

In 1999, a white man named Clyde Eddy, who was 10 at the time of the massacre, told authorities that he saw white men digging a trench in the Potters’ Field section of Oaklawn Cemetery in 1921.

Eddy told officials that he peeked inside wooden crates and saw black people’s corpses.

Based on Eddy’s story, state archaeologists led by Clyde Snow, one of the world’s foremost forensic anthropologists, searched for evidence of mass graves in Oaklawn Cemetery in the area Eddy specified.

Investigators discovered an “anomaly” bearing “all the characteristics of a dug pit or trench with vertical walls and an undefined object within the approximate center of the feature,” the Tulsa Race Riot Commission concluded in its 2001 report. “With Mr. Eddy’s testimony, this trench-like feature takes on the properties of a mass grave.”

The commission recommended excavation, but it never happened.

Susan Savage, who was mayor of Tulsa at the time, said she was concerned about disturbing graves to excavate the site.

On Tuesday, some black residents of Tulsa were thrilled that Bynum ordered a reexamination of one of the most painful episodes in the city’s history.

“This is a true step toward reconciliation,” said Kristi Williams, a local activist. “We’ve been asking for this for years. But the answer” from then-mayors “was always, ‘The city doesn’t have the money to do it.’ They would always use the same excuse. They didn’t want to disturb the other bodies.”

Tiffany Crutcher, whose brother was killed by a police officer in 2016, said the city has long avoided hard discussions about race. The victims of the massacre, she said, “never received justice. They were never properly memorialized. We have suffered residual effects of this for close to 100 years. Our ancestors are crying out for justice, and we feel it is our duty to see to it” that they receive “the proper burials they deserve.”

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