Tulsa race massacre: Search continues for mass grave site from 1921

Nearly 100 years after white mobs terrorised black residents in the Oklahoma city, crews resume excavation following coronavirus delays

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 14 July 2020 19:48 BST
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Archaeologists and dig crews have resumed the excavation of a suspected mass grave in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the bloodiest episodes of racist violence in the US.

A white mob terrorised hundreds of black Americans during a nearly two-day massacre on 31 May 1921. Armed white men, backed by Oklahoma officials and law enforcement, shot at black residents, bombed buildings and set them ablaze, destroying 35 blocks of homes, businesses, churches and schools in the city's prosperous Greenwood neighbourhood, known as Black Wall Street.

Scores of families were left homeless, and at least 300 people were killed.

After a radar revealed a "large anomaly consistent with a mass grave" near Oaklawn Cemetery, the city agreed to launch the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Inspection with the University of Oklahoma in March to find the remains of black residents killed in the event and determine the scale of the massacre that resonates nearly 100 years later.

However the coronavirus pandemic forced the city to suspend the archaeological survey. It resumed on 13 July, and the full excavation began on Tuesday.

The test project is part of a feasibility study to determine whether human remains are on the site and how to proceed with a larger investigation. It's expected to take up to six days.

"As a city, we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process – filling gaps in our city's history and providing healing and justice to our community," Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum said in a statement.

Archaeologists on Tuesday said they've discovered some artefacts consistent with the early 1900s, including parts of a boot and pearl buttons, but the crew has not yet discovered human remains.

Human rights groups have argued for reparations to families and Tulsa residents through significant public investments, following government inaction in the wake of the massacre and its failure to rebuild a once-thriving community.

Mayor Bynum has argued that city leaders and business groups engaged in a cover-up effort, to obscure the scale of violence that robbed generations of residents of their wealth and family history.

On Monday, state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck reported that the site was "much deeper" than the team had expected.

Investigations into a suspected mass grave site were first performed in the late 1990s, though the results determined the claims were unsubstantiated.

But Mayor Bynum ordered that investigations reopen following a 2018 Washington Post report detailing the massacre's unresolved histories and unanswered questions from the families of victims, including survivors who reported seeing bodies placed in mass graves.

In December, forensic archaeologists discovered "anomalies" in the grave site, prompting a physical excavation project.

Tulsa recently recognised the 99th anniversary of the massacre, which played a central role in the acclaimed HBO series Watchmen, bringing renewed attention to an often-neglected stain on US history amid the turmoil and violence of post-Reconstruction America and a Jim Crow era marked by lynchings, the beginnings of mass incarceration and targeted policing of black Americans.

This year, the Oklahoma Department of Education is expected to incorporate the massacre's history into its curriculums for the first time.

The investigation relaunch follows Donald Trump's re-election campaign kickoff in Tulsa. The president's event was initially scheduled for Juneteenth but moved to the following day after outrage from black residents who feared that the president was exploiting the holiday celebrating the end of enslavement for a rally glorifying white nationalism.

"A day set aside to commemorate the freedom of enslaved people must not be marred by the words or actions of a racist president," Oklahoma's black Democratic Party chairwoman Alicia Andrews said in a 11 June statement before the campaign moved the rally date.

"This is a slap in the face to every black Oklahoman, every black American ... It's worse than pandering to his base. It has the potential of galvanizing racists in Oklahoma and the nation to further denigrate a group of people who built the very house in which the president lives."

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