US researchers have begun searching for the unmarked mass graves of an estimated 300 African Americans who were killed in the Tulsa Race massacre nearly a century ago.
Test excavations began Monday at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the south-central region of the United States, after a radar search earlier this year revealed the possibility of mass graves.
The search was postponed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and involves using an excavator to remove the first layer of soil before using more delicate tools if remains are discovered, Oklahoma State archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot, in which white mobs murdered black residents and destroyed businesses in an affluent area called Black Wall Street, is arguably the worst outbreak of racial violence in US history.
Eighteen hours of violence that erupted on May 31, 1921, burned the city’s affluent black community of Greenwood.
Nearly 10,000 people became homeless after the mobs, which included members of the Tulsa Police Department, burned over 1,400 homes, numerous businesses, a dozen churches, a hospital, school and public library in more than 35 square kilometers in the Greenwood community had stuck.
The May 31 riot was sparked by a confrontation between a white lynch mob and black men protecting Dick Rowland, an African American teenager who was accused the previous day of trying to rape a white elevator operator. For almost two days, white mobs set the community on fire and left it in ruins. Rowland was eventually exonerated.
An all-white grand jury blamed the residents of the black city for the chaos. Even with overwhelming evidence, whites were never imprisoned for murders and arson.
Most of Tulsa’s black population has been left homeless by the violence. Many began rebuilding Greenwood within days, despite the efforts of white realtors trying to force them to move.
The massacre broke out at a time of particularly heightened racist tension in the United States. Race riots broke out in the summer of 1919 and continued into the fall, spreading to at least 26 cities in some of the most intense acts of racial violence in US history.
The Tulsa government and business leaders participated in a “concerted cover-up” of the Tulsa Race Massacre for years, said GT Bynum, Tulsa mayor.
“They have had generations of people who grew up in this community … and never heard of it,” he said. “I feel an enormous responsibility as a mayor to find these people. This is a fundamental thing a city government should do for the people, and Tulsa didn’t.”
Tulsa officials said they expect the excavation to take up to six days.