Search for Suspected Mass Graves from 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Begins

© Jenny Wagnon Courts/ABC News
Workers break ground at Oaklawn Cemetery in north Tulsa, Okla., on July 13, 2020, searching for a potential mass grave of victims of the race massacre that occurred in this city in 1921.

The city of Tulsa is breaking ground on a mission to find the truth. It’s a mission many agree is 99 years too late, but officials are beginning a journey to unearth a piece of the city’s history that many refused to speak openly about until recently.

A team of professional historians, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists is digging up ground at Oaklawn Cemetery in search of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

What began as a confrontation between groups of white and black residents following the arrest of a young black man named Dick Rowland ended with 35 city blocks being burned to the ground in the city’s Greenwood District. Greenwood was an affluent area known as Black Wall Street, and home to 1,200 black residents and 300 black-owned businesses.

Rowland was riding in an elevator with a white woman named Sarah Page. Details about what happened in the elevator have never been confirmed, but reports say Page screamed and Rowland ran off. According to official reports on the event, Tulsa Police arrested Rowland the next day.

An article published in the local paper led members of the black community to believe Rowland would be lynched, so a group of black residents went to the courthouse where Rowland was being held, where they were confronted by a group of white residents. Shots were fired, witnesses interviewed in the weeks and months following the event said, but as black residents returned to Greenwood, they were followed by white mobs, who opened fire on black residents and began looting and setting fire to buildings.

The case against Dick Rowland was dismissed in September 1921.

Historians believe that as many as 300 people were killed as white mobs destroyed homes, businesses, churches, schools, hospitals and other buildings over a span of two days. Nearly 100 years later, many of those victims’ bodies have never been found.

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