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Tulsa residents seek answers, results in new investigation of Black Wall Street massacre

By | Last updated: Aug 14, 2019 - 10:24:20 AM

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Considered one of the most extreme examples of forced gentrification and racial violence ever executed in this country, with as many as 191 Black-owned businesses being destroyed, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot (also called the Greenwood Massacre) is etched in history. Nearly a century ago, home to the wealthiest Black community in the country at the time, Black Wall Street was decimated, but today there is still unfinished business remaining.

In this May 10, 2016 photo, Alecia Chatman, who is with the city council office, is silhouetted against the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla. The church, which was spared destruction during the 1921 Tulsa race riots, has been added to the National Register for Historic Places.

In addition to businesses, several churches, a school, the city’s only Black hospital, and 1,200 homes owned by Black families were burned to the ground, with 200 more homes that were looted. More than 6,000 people were housed in internment camps in the aftermath of the riot, and it’s clear to see the grim picture of the amount of people who were left homeless and displaced. Today, the total amount of the damage done to Black Wall Street surpasses more than $32 million. And today, the continued gentrification of Black people in the Greenwood District is much more subtle, yet still pervasive enough to make residents feel both isolated and forgotten. But one thing that is never far from the memories of North Tulsa’s Black community is what happened to the men, women and children who were murdered at the hands of an angry White mob, and whose bodies have never been found.

Earlier this year in April, it was announced the mayor of Tulsa included $100,000 in his budget for investigations of three grave sites that could hold the remains of people killed in the 1921 race riots.

Last October Mayor G.T. Bynum said the money would be used to fund an investigation into three locations believed to be the final resting place of many of those killed in the riots. When he made the decision to examine and potentially excavate the sites—two at Oaklawn Cemetery and Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, as well as property near Newblock Park—that may have been used as mass graves after the riots, he assured residents that the City of Tulsa would treat this new search as a “homicide investigation for Tulsans who we believe were murdered in 1921.”

While official death certificates have been recorded for 37 people—25 Black—most accounts claim that as many as 300 people died between May 31, 1921 and June 1, with an overwhelming majority of them being Black. However, many of those both inside and outside of Tulsa believe that number is substantially higher.

“We do not believe that it was only 300 people who were killed that day. We believe that number to be much more than that,” Mechelle Brown, program coordinator of the Greenwood Cultural Center, told The Final Call.

Dispute about the actual death toll notwithstanding, those tasked with conducting this most recent probe are asking many of Greenwood’s residents to temper their hopes and expectations of finally getting closure into the whereabouts of all those missing from Black Wall Street.

“Be realistic, a century has passed,” University of Florida forensic anthropologist Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield told attendees during the July 18 public oversight meeting concerning the mass graves.

Dr. Stubblefield, who is Black, is an expert in identifying human remains, but she also said that because so much time has passed, being able to identify anyone who is found could prove to be difficult.

“I want to send these people home, and I hope to be able to identify them enough to know (whether they are) a race massacre victim,” Dr. Stubblefield said, adding, “I present this not to be a killjoy for those eager to get these stories told. [But] it’s really about establishing a timeline.”

That message wasn’t well received by those who have spent many years in limbo hoping and waiting for answers. However, the residents of North Tulsa remain optimistic.

“They’ve repeatedly said to us to not get our hopes up; that this may not lead to much because it’s been nearly 100 years and they weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Ms. Brown explained, adding, “But the community is still excited in a way, and grateful that this is taking place because we believe the stories that our ancestors shared with us. We believe the stories from the survivors who said there were several mass grave sites.”

Almost a century ago, Black Wall Street was the most prominent Black business district in the State of Oklahoma, and the United States of America. But in a span of a little more than 24 hours, after a White woman claimed she had been sexually assaulted by a Black man, the Greenwood District was leveled in one of the worst race riots ever recorded on American soil. Some scholars and historians say the allegation gave the perfect excuse and cover for Tulsa’s White community, who were insanely jealous of the success they saw manifesting inside Greenwood and were uncomfortable seeing so many prominent and well-off Black folks around them, to lash out and attack.

Three years ago, The Smithsonian Museum published a 10-page manuscript written by B.C. Franklin—father of famed Black historian John Hope Franklin—titled, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of its Victims.” The document was discovered in 2015 and donated to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. In it, Mr. Franklin described seeing planes circling the air and dropping bombs on the Greenwood District. He also described in vivid detail the flames and thick Black smoke from the burning buildings, and wondered if the local fire department was acting in concert with the enraged White mob because they did nothing to put out the fires, choosing instead to let Black Wall Street burn to the ground. From that day on, the area would never be the same.

Today, the Greenwood District, from the perspective of local residents and business owners in the area, has become increasingly White as Black people continue to find themselves being pushed out in the name of urban renewal.

“In the Greenwood District, we see the new businesses and new structures that are going up all around us. There has been a growth spurt in the area—we’re adjacent to downtown Tulsa—and there has been a ton of new hotels and other businesses that are encroaching upon the Greenwood District and not enough attention has been given to restoring and renovating the other side of the Greenwood District,” said Ms. Brown.

She explained that a set of railroad tracks serve as dividing line between the Greenwood District and downtown Tulsa. As a result of recent changes to the community, many of the historical plaques that were used to identify the many Black-owned businesses destroyed in the riot. Add that to the construction of I-244 which cuts right through the heart of Greenwood, the $9.5 million apartment complex and the $39.2 million baseball field for the Tulsa Drillers minor league team, and it’s easy to see how the erasure of Black history on Black Wall Street has been a constant throughout the years. This has added to the already deep feelings of resentment and distrust that Black people in North Tulsa feel towards the city and the leaders who have made these development decisions.

Now, to be told it’s possible the Black community still won’t have a sense of closure once this project is completed, adds another layer of pain and frustration.

Attempts to locate potential mass burial sites in the Black Wall Street riots have happened in Tulsa twice before; once in the 90s and again in the early 2000s. Ground penetrating radar was used to scan a number of sites, but nothing was found. In 2001 the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 found that the city, along with the White mob, willfully conspired against the Black people in Greenwood, and suggested a reparations plan be put in place to compensate any living survivors of the massacre, as well as their descendants. However, there has been no level of repair administered to right a century-old wrong. The Greenwood District lacks even the most basic resources, like a grocery store and restaurants, all of the things that Black Wall Street had in abundance before it was destroyed.

Next year will mark the 99-year anniversary of the Black Wall Street massacre, and there is a feeling in the community that part of this renewed effort into searching the three new potential mass grave sites, is due in large part to the impending centennial, simply based on the fact that all eyes will be on Tulsa and there is almost certain to be a renewed national, and even international interest into what happened in 1921 and what’s being done today to rectify it.

“It is my goal that our ancestors—who were brutally murdered and placed in mass graves—are given to their families and receive a proper burial so we as a city can have closure,” Tulsa city councilwoman Vaness Hall-Harper said during the July oversight meeting addressing community concerns around the project.

Still, despite some apprehension and doubt that exists, there are also those who feel the City of Tulsa is sincere in its effort to finally find out where these lost, Black Tulsans are, closing the book on a very sordid chapter in the history of race relations between Black and White people in this country.