1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Want DOJ — Not City — to Search for Graves of Victims of White Mob

The City of Tulsa has begun to search for mass graves, but a recent reburial of potential Black victims without confirming a connection to the riot led to protests

Tulsa Race Massacre
Fires burning in Tulsa's Black community of Greenwood on June 1, 1921, during the Tulsa Race Massacre. Photo: Courtesy of University of Tulsa - McFarlin Library Special Collections

Frustrated by the city's efforts, a group representing survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene as a "neutral, third-party investigator" in the search for the mass graves of victims from that tragedy.

"There are innumerable reasons why the Department of Justice should intervene in this case," said the letter dated Friday from the group Justice for Greenwood. "First, the City perpetrated the massacre and then led the cover up of the massacre for 75 years. Over the last 20 years and currently, the City's official position is they are not responsible for the horrendous loss of life, land, or livelihood that they caused."

The letter added: "The known and suspected mass grave sites are crime scenes. As such, these crime scenes should not be investigated by the very perpetrator(s) of the crime, let alone entities we know have failed to adequately investigate and prosecute those responsible for the crimes."

The centennial of the May 31-June 1, 1921, massacre in the thriving Greenwood community then known as Black Wall Street thrust the incident back into national prominence, two decades after a 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 delivered the first official government review of what happened.

According to the PBS documentary Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, the massacre was sparked after a young Black man entered a downtown elevator and bumped a white woman, who alleged he'd assaulted her. With the Black teen caught and jailed, the Tulsa Tribune newspaper published an editorial headlined, "To Lynch Negro Tonight."

Tulsa Race Massacre
Aftermath of the Greenwood community following the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Black men from Greenwood went to the courthouse to protect him. A gunshot rang out. A white crowd then moved on Greenwood, where looting and fires erupted.

Nearly 40 blocks of Greenwood were devastated and thousands of residents were displaced. Until then, the neighborhood -- whose residents included many property-owning Black veterans of World War I -- had flourished with blocks of businesses housing multiple restaurants, four hotels and two theaters, along with professional offices filled by doctors, dentists, lawyers, real estate agents and others, according to a 3D model of the district at its peak reconstructed by The New York Times.

The state commission placed the property losses at $1.8 million, equivalent to $27 million today.

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No one was charged. Two weeks later, then–Tulsa Mayor T.D. Evans concluded in a written City Commission report, "Let the blame for this negro uprising lie right where it belongs … on those armed negroes and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it," according to the documentary.

Estimates say as many as 300 people died. According to The Washington Post, eyewitnesses claimed that bodies of Black people were thrown into mass graves, into the Arkansas River, or taken away after being loaded onto trucks or trains.

Current Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum in 2018 committed his city to "providing healing and justice," which included a renewed investigation into searching for mass graves. The city has documented those ongoing efforts online.

Tulsa Race Massacre
Greenwood's Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns during the Tulsa Race Massacre, June 1, 2021. Courtesy of University of Tulsa - McFarlin Library Special Collections. Thanks, Jeff

But an outcry arose in June after the city chose to rebury 19 bodies exhumed from a possible mass grave in a city-owned cemetery, including the remains of one Black man whose skeletal remains revealed multiple gunshot wounds to his head and shoulder, before any potential connection to the massacre was made public, reports the Post.

"The scientists leading the technical analysis of the remains have obtained all the data they need from the physical remains, so the remains were reburied in accordance with the previously agreed upon plan," Bynum said in an Aug. 2 email to the Tulsa City Council and shared with PEOPLE.

He added: "Those scientists will now use the data they have obtained to develop a final report presenting their findings, which will be presented in the Fall. This report will include their recommendations for next steps."

The city, through spokesman Michelle Brooks, declined to comment on the letter to the justice department, citing pending litigation between the city and the Justice for Greenwood group.

A spokesman for the justice department acknowledged receipt of the letter but also declined comment, reports The New York Times.

Among those who signed the letter were Regina Goodwin, an Oklahoma state legislator who represents the Greenwood district, who told PEOPLE in May: "Some 300 people were murdered, 1,256 homes burnt to the ground. White folks in particular that had committed the crime didn't want it discussed, of course. And the Black folks that were victims of the crime knew that no one was ever charged or convicted, so it would be difficult to really have a conversation if you thought you were going to get justice."

She continued: "Black lives for some folks still don't matter in Oklahoma. And certainly when you saw a massacre, and you talk about the fire and the forgotten, that was evidence that those Black lives did not matter. Before there was a George Floyd ...." She paused.

"The through line is continual," she said. "And the difficulty is when people don't want to learn the facts."

"History will be forgotten if it's never taught," she said.

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