A mass grave has been unearthed in an Oklahoma cemetery as archaeologists continue to search for victims of one of the most terrible examples of racist mass terror in modern U.S. history, the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.
The Tulsa Massacre happened when a white mob assisted by the police set upon the city’s Greenwood district – a prosperous area known as Black Wall Street – in a two-day orgy of violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of Black victims and led to the decimation of upwards of 1,000 homes belonging to African American families.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelback announced that her team had found the outlines of 10 coffins at Oaklawn Cemetary in Tulsa and that she has a “high degree of confidence that this is one of the locations that we have been looking for.”
However, investigators remain cautious about the finding because they haven’t yet exposed the likely human remains.
City officials began efforts to uncover the remains of victims of the 1921 massacre in 2018. An excavation of another area of the cemetery in July did not yield any results.
Since continuing the excavation on Monday, state archaeologists have already found one set of human remains and a suspected second set, which are both not yet confirmed to belong to the victims of the massacre.
“We still have a lot of work to do to identify the nature of that mass grave and identify who is in it, but what we do know, as of today, is that there is a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery where we have no record of anyone being buried,” said Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum in a Wednesday news conference, reports CNN.
Community members involved in the efforts hope that their findings can help shed light on the brutal disappearances and murders that effectively erased a thriving Black community off the face of the map, and was subsequently erased from official U.S. history.
“We basically are thinking of our loved ones, our community members who lost their lives very, very tragically,” said Brenda Alford, the chair of the investigation’s public oversight committee. “I am just very appreciative of all the hard work that is going into finding our truth, to again bring some sense of justice and healing to our community.”
The cemetery has been the focus of efforts after records showed that some 18 identified and unidentified victims of the race riots were buried in the seminary.
It is believed that about 300 African American residents of the North Tusla area were butchered by a white mob on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of vigilantes – aided by authorities on the local, state, and federal levels – swept through an area that was home to about 10,000 Black residents.
Tulsa’s Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street or “Little Africa,” had become a successful part of the city filled with Black-owned businesses, health clinics, law offices, churches, and even a Black-owned bus line. Several Black millionaires who had profited from the oil boom also resided in Greenwood. However, local white racists and the local press derided the area as “N*****town.”
The area was plunged into blood and fire on May 21 after a young Black man, Dick Rowland, was dragged to the Tulsa County Courthouse by a lynch-mob after he was accused of insulting a white woman.
A group of Black men arrived at the courthouse to defend Rowland from the crowd, and after a brief exchange of fire, police organized posses of deputized white men and gave them permission to rampage through Greenwood and loot, murder, and pillage the area.
As the orgy of violence reached its crescendo, private planes even dropped firebombs onto the Black businesses and residential buildings of Greenwood while gunmen strafed Black residents fleeing the massacre.
When all was said and done, as many as 300 people were killed and Black Wall Street was decimated. An account from Black attorney B.C. Franklin recalled the area was reduced to “ashes and burned safes and trunks and the like, where once stood beautiful homes” and businesses.
Victims’ families were also rounded up under martial law while bodies were buried in mass graves by strangers. Many families were never given notice of whether their loved ones died or even where they were buried. Some families still don’t know where their aunts, uncles, and grandparents disappeared to during that period.
The Tulsa Massacre has often been referred to as a “race riot,” but historians contend that the term hardly describes the scale of violence and complicity of local authorities, who even went so far as to block Red Cross medical personnel from entering Tulsa while forcing firemen to turn around at gunpoint when they entered the area.
“The term riot is contentious, because it assumes that black people started the violence, as they were accused of doing by whites,” said Smithsonian Museum programmer John W. Franklin in a Smithsonian Magazine article. “We increasingly use the term massacre, or I use the European term, pogrom.”
The tragic episode was largely erased from the annals of official U.S. history until recent years, as Black historians and others have brought more attention to the massacre.
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