Tulsa Mayor Reopens Investigation Into Possible Mass Graves from 1921 Race Massacre That Killed Hundreds of African-Americans

Tulsa City Council member Vanessa Hall-Harper and local activist Kristi Williams at Oaklawn Cemetery. (Shane Bevel/for The Washington Post)

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.”

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.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, DeNeen L. Brown