race massacre
An overview of the aftermath of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. (Greenwood Cultural Center)

Anthropologists Searching for Graves from 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

The Tulsa Race Massacre, also called the Tulsa Race Riot, has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history” by historians. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla. More than 300 Black people were killed and 10,000-plus were left homeless. The bodies were tossed into mass graves.

Now, almost 100 years after the race massacre, scientists and forensic anthropologists using ground-penetrating radar combed the grounds of Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, looking for mass graves, the Washington Post reported. Scientists and historians think the mass graves might be there because it is only a few blocks from the Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street, where most of the violence took place.

The cemetery is also the site where, in 1999, anthropologist Clyde Snow and a team of other scientists found an anomaly bearing “all the characteristics of a dug pit or trench with vertical walls and an undefined object within the approximate center of the feature,” the Tulsa Race Riot Commission concluded in its 2001 report — in other words, possibly a mass grave.

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Despite the discovery in 1999, the city at the time decided against digging.

But last year, when the Post reported on the race massacre and the possibility of the mass grave, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced that he would reopen the investigation into mass graves and called it a murder investigation.

“We owe it to the community to determine if there are mass graves in our city,” Bynum told The Post at the time. “We owe it to the victims and their family members … If you get murdered in Tulsa, we have a contract with you that we will do everything we can to find out what happened and render justice. That’s why we are treating this as a homicide investigation for Tulsans who we believe were murdered in 1921.”

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