Nearly a Century After the Black Wall Street Massacre, Tulsa Looks for the Bodies

The 1921 burning of Black Wall Street, in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, district of Greenwood.
The 1921 burning of Black Wall Street, in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, district of Greenwood. Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

Earlier this week, scientists and forensic anthropologists in Oklahoma began searching a Tulsa graveyard for evidence of a mass grave. The effort comes 20 years after a previous team of researchers found a structural anomaly in the city-owned site, featuring “all the characteristics of a dug pit or trench with vertical walls and an undefined object within the approximate center of the feature,” the Washington Post reports. The new team hopes to corroborate these findings. If such a grave exists, it will have been filled with the remains of dead black people, victims of a massacre. The Oaklawn Cemetery is located a few blocks from the city’s Greenwood District, known a century ago as Black Wall Street. There, in 1921, white Tulsans perpetrated one of the deadliest race riots in American history, killing as many as 300 black residents, dispossessing 10,000 more, and burning 40 blocks of their homes and businesses to the ground.

Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum, a Republican, has framed this week’s effort as a murder investigation. “We owe it to the community to determine if there are mass graves in our city,” he told the Post in 2018. “We owe it to the victims and their family members.” Allegations that black corpses at the time were loaded onto trains, tossed into the Arkansas River, or buried in mass graves have long fueled debate about how to reckon with the killings, but even after the 1999 discovery, the city declined to investigate further. The decision to do so now is partly an attempt at closure as the riot’s centennial approaches. It’s also a reminder of how racist violence has long been used to forcibly reorganize the geography of black American life, with the starkest evidence often lying right underneath our feet.

The 1921 massacre is usually understood as a manifestation of latent envy, held by local whites toward a neighboring black district defined by remarkable wealth and entrepreneurial independence. But it began officially, on May 31 of that year, with an unverified sexual-assault allegation by a white teenager, Sarah Page, against a black man named Dick Rowland who happened to board the same elevator as her. When Page exited the car screaming, rumors spread that she’d been raped. Angry white people — encouraged by local reporting, including a Tulsa Tribune story enticing readers to “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” — laid siege to Greenwood, trapping black residents within its borders, brandishing weapons, and shouting epithets. Scattered fights broke out, and members of the white mob burglarized local stores, amassing guns and ammunition. Shots were fired and white Tulsans stormed the district; some took to the sky in airplanes and dropped kerosene bombs on their black neighbors. The violence lasted 48 hours, leaving hundreds of black people dead and much of the surrounding area razed. Efforts to rebuild and repopulate were met with staunch white resistance. Though Greenwood eventually regained some of its luster, it was never again the Black Wall Street of old.

“We want full reparations, transparency, and justice,” Kristi Williams, a local activist and member of the public oversight community establishment by the city to supervise the investigation, told the Post this week. All will be determined by the outcome of a process set to unfold as follows: a search for mass graves using radar devices in several local cemeteries, and if found, a decision about whether to excavate the remains therein; DNA testing and cause-of-death determinations performed by a local coroner; and discussions about how to store and then commemorate the dead. Local officials anticipate a reckoning with an atrocity that retains too many unanswered questions. From the Post, quoting Tulsa city councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper:

I hope they find what we know is there. I hope they find the mass graves. We know hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, were murdered. Something was done with their bodies. We hope to get to the truth of where some victims of the massacre were dumped, and ultimately, we will lay them to rest.

The 1921 killings fit a pattern which, in retrospect, sheds valuable light on how Americans have come to understand race riots. Recent instances of what’s often termed “racial unrest” — typically black residents incensed by racist conditions protesting and vandalizing the neighborhoods where they live — have been targets of criticism by those seeking to cast the perpetrators as unruly thugs. But research suggests that such violence is often retaliatory, in a sense, carried out by everyday people pushed past the limits of civil behavior by untenable conditions. Until World War II, almost all race riots in the U.S. were instances of white mobs terrorizing black communities. But according to Isabel Wilkerson, whose book The Warmth of Other Suns recounts how such violence in the South helped spur a mass migration of black people north and west, the 1943 Detroit riot was the first where black people fought back in earnest against their white antagonizers. Usually thereafter, black rioters vying with police became the norm. But the shift cannot be divorced from how previous riots created the black presence in cities like Detroit, Ferguson, and Baltimore in the first place. Black life and where it unfolds in America is largely dictated by where white violence has chased and contained it. Black Wall Street was an example of the unlikely prosperity this could produce, when permitted. But when it became too prosperous, even that was bombed and set ablaze, and many of its black residents were forced to start again elsewhere, creating a new generation of refugees.

The warlike conditions to which these and other black Americans were subjected are fittingly embodied by their discardment in a mass grave. Such a burial would illustrate both the massive scope of the atrocity and the disdain with which its victims were considered. The search in Tulsa is expected to continue into December or January. Whatever arises from it, the effort to reckon with past harms is fundamentally a noble one. Black life in the city has already been forcibly rearranged so dramatically as a result of the Black Wall Street massacre. The least that can be done is to ensure that those left behind, buried in the ground, are memorialized with the respect they deserve.

A Century After a Massacre, Tulsa Investigates a Mass Grave