Experts Think They've Discovered Mass Gravesite from 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma

The Tulsa Race Massacre began on May 31 in 1921 and is said to be the "single worst incident of racial violence in American history"

Researchers with the University of Oklahoma believe they may have found a mass gravesite from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

In October 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum launched an investigation into rumors of mass graves from the race riots, calling them a “point of shame for our community,” NBC affiliate KJRH reported at the time.

On Monday, experts held a public hearing in the city to reveal that after using geophysical scanning to survey the Oaklawn Cemetery, they have identified two spots that they believe may contain bodies of those killed in the massacre nearly 100 years ago, NBC reported.

They suspect that one of those spots — which happens to be a 30 ft. by 25 ft. trench — may be a mass grave.

“I’m as confident as I can be in the results that this is a very big candidate with something associated with the massacre,” Scott Hammerstedt, a senior researcher for the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, said on Monday.

Oak Lawn Cemetery Downtown Tulsa Oklahoma USA
Oak Lawn Cemetery. Alamy

However, experts cautioned that they have no knowledge of how many bodies may be uncovered in the potential graves, saying it could be anywhere from 10 to 100. They also warned that they will be likely unable to identify for bodies.

“We just don’t know what level of preservation we’ll get,” Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, said.

The Tulsa Race Massacre began on May 31 in 1921 and lasted until June 1 — and is said to be the “single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

It began after a young black man named Dick Rowland rode alone in an elevator with a white woman named Sarah Page on May 30 of that year.

Photograph of an African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921
Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

“The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling,” the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum said.

Rowland was arrested the following day and allegedly accused of sexually assaulting Page, and a white mob demanded he be turned over to them.

A group of approximately 25 black men went down to the courthouse and offered to help protect Rowland, fearing that he may be lynched by the mob, but were turned away. As the mob continued to place pressure on the sheriff and local guardsmen, more black men returned to the courthouse later that night.

Nearly 1,500 armed white men faced off against about 75 black men outside the courthouse. Shots were fired and the violence ensued, the historical society said.

As the outnumbered black men retreated to Greenwood, the segregated city’s predominantly African American district, the mob began burning and looting many of the district’s black businesses. White men also began making “drive-by” shootings in black residential neighborhoods.

Tulsa Race riot, June 1, 1917
Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921
Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Everett/Shutterstock

The city was placed under martial law and the National Guard was brought in to halt the violence. At the end of the carnage, 35 city blocks were in ruins while over 800 people were being treated for injuries. It was reported that 36 died in the riot, but historians now believe that number may actually be in the hundreds.

Bodies of those murdered in the massacre may be in these new gravesites, however, any further investigation won’t be decided upon for at least a few months, according to NBC, because the public oversight committee for the project does not meet again until February.

In the meantime, researchers have recommended that the city secure the sites.

The city is also looking into investigating the Booker T. Washington Cemetery, as researchers believe it could also be home to another potential gravesite.

Related Articles