Identity

This Discovery Might Hold the Secrets to the Deadliest Racist Massacre in U.S. History

Archaeological researchers have uncovered a possible mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery, Tulsa’s oldest graveyard. It could finally reveal how many people were killed in the infamous 1921 attack on Greenwood, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street.
December 18, 2019, 5:10pm
Photograph of an African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)
A man with a camera looks at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

The official death toll was just 36, but everyone must have known that was a lie. The 1921 attack on Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood—a thriving, independent, prosperous African-American community known as Black Wall Street—leveled 35 city blocks and destroyed at least 1,200 homes and businesses, reducing many of them to little more than ashes. At least 800 people went to the hospital, and some 6,000 Black citizens were jailed for as long as eight days. It is commonly referred to today as a massacre—or even, borrowing a better-fitting word from another context, a pogrom. Yet after the carnage was over, the official number of dead, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics, was said to be precisely three dozen.

It has been obvious for years that that number was likely deliberately inaccurate, a fig leaf to hide the shame of what occurred. The dead probably numbered in the hundreds, according to more recent estimates. And at last, archaeological researchers believe they may have uncovered the mass grave where some of those dead now lie. In a report released this week, researchers at the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey announced that they have located two large “anomalies” at Oaklawn Cemetery, Tulsa’s oldest graveyard, that are both “consistent with a common grave.”

The Tulsa massacre, also referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot,” took place on May 31, when a white mob descended on Greenwood, using the thin pretext of a black teenager’s supposed assault of a white woman. (It was an accusation that was often used to justify violence against Black people; Paul Gardullo, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has said it was “a formula that resulted in untold numbers of lynchings across the nation.”)

In this instance, a 19-year-old shoeshiner named Dick Rowland was accused of raping a white 17-year-old elevator operator named Sarah Page. After Rowland was arrested, a crowd of white men appeared at the jail, intent on gaining entry, dragging him out, and lynching him. Soon after, a number of black citizens, several of them World War I veterans, arrived to volunteer to guard the prisoner. Shots were exchanged; 12 people are said to have been killed, 10 white and two black.

That deadly incident was used as a wholesale excuse to destroy Greenwood: The fast-growing mob set fires, threw bombs and shot fleeing citizens. Private planes were also used to drop incendiary bombs on people, businesses, libraries, and at least one church, according to a 2001 report from a state commission and the eyewitness accounts of survivors.The violence stretched into the next day. One young survivor, then six-year-old Olivia Hooker, told NPR last year that she remembers her mother hiding her and her siblings beneath a dining room table as a group of white men waving torches invaded their home; Hooker said she watched as they used an axe to destroy her sister Irene’s cherished piano.

Several disturbing mysteries lingered after the massacre was over. It’s never been clear, for instance, who owned all of the private planes used to firebomb Greenwood, as the 2001 report lays out. (It also notes that some white citizens denied that the planes had been used for firebombing at all.) But the most chilling question has always been where the many hundreds of unaccounted-for dead were buried.

The report on the new potential mass grave site was authored by Amanda L. Regnier, the director of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma, and Scott Hammerstedt, a senior researcher there. Using a variety of scientific techniques, including ground-penetrating radar (GPR), magnetic gradiometry, and electrical resistivity, they found two spots where those killed by the massacre might be interred en masse. Regnier and Hammerstedt specialize in pre-contact Native American archaeology, but their knowledge using geophysical equipment, Regnier said, means they’re often asked to assist with other archaeological projects, as well as, as she puts it, contacted by “law enforcement and a variety of folks associated with cemeteries in various ways.”

But nothing like this. “We have successfully located mass burials on prior projects,” Regnier told VICE, “but it is safe to say this project is by far the most important and impactful work I have done in my career.”

"I'm as confident as I can be in the results that this is a very big candidate with something associated with the massacre," Hammerstedt said at a public hearing on Monday, according to a report from NBC. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, meanwhile, emphasized on Twitter that there was still “much work to be done to determine if this is a mass grave from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.”

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Regnier and Hammerstedt’s report found that besides the areas that appear to be mass graves, Oaklawn also has a number of unmarked graves and what they call “ephemeral graves,” a term that often indicates that bodies were interred without coffins. Burials in coffins, Regnier says, are picked up more strongly by radar technology.

“If an individual was buried without a coffin, which was likely the case with many of the massacre victims, 100 years of natural decomposition means that the only target for the radar are the bones that remain,” she said. “A human skeleton has a much lower reflectivity than coffins or vaults and won’t show up as strongly in the profiles. We know the funeral homes in Tulsa ran out of coffins after the race massacre, so victims may have been buried without coffins.”

Regnier and Hammerstedt’s report emphasized that more testing will have to take place before the sites can be confirmed to be mass graves or associated with the Tulsa massacre. For the next phase of the project, forensic anthropologists will now investigate, including uncovering any possible bodies, led by Phoebe Stubblefield of the University of Florida. (Stubblefield said at the same public hearing, however, that it’s possible the researchers will not be able to identify any of the remains, given their level of decomposition. She said the number of bodies may number anywhere from 10 to 100.)

The next phase will also focus on what will happen to any human remains that are uncovered, Regnier said. “Before any subsurface testing proceeds, there will be a written feasibility plan provided to the Public Oversight Committee that details how the forensic anthropology team plans to conduct testing, excavations, and analysis and, most importantly, a set in stone plan in place to rebury all of the individuals who are disinterred.” NBC also reported that the city is working to get permission to do a similar scan at Booker T. Washington Cemetery, which is privately owned, and which the research team believes could house another possible burial site.

Regnier’s team has been searching the city’s cemeteries for mass graves since 2018, but the project got more attention recently with the vivid depiction of the massacre featured in the first episode of the recently-concluded HBO series Watchmen.

“I have to hope that Watchmen has certainly raised the public profile of the investigation,” Regnier says, “And the race massacre in general … Most people have a general idea that it occurred, but don’t know the full history.”