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Possible mass grave sites identified for Tulsa race riots

Injured and wounded prisoners are being taken to hospital by National guardsmen after the Tulsa race riots in 1921

Story at a glance

  • Anywhere between 38 and 300 people were reportedly killed in the 1921 Tulsa race riots.
  • Previous reports on the attack on the black community of Greenwood have mentioned the potential existence of mass graves of riot victims.
  • Investigators have identified two locations for archeological testing and excavation to determine whether mass graves exist there.

Two possible sites of mass graves associated with the 1921 Tulsa race riot have been identified in Oklahoma through an investigation using geophysical scanning. 

“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 W. Hammerstedt, a senior researcher for the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, said at a public hearing in Tulsa on Dec. 16, as reported by NBC News

Hammerstedt and Amanda L. Regnier led an investigation commissioned in 2018 by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who told NBC2 he learned about the possibility of these graves as a city councilor in 2012.

“It is the great tragedy in the history of our city. It’s something that was such a point of shame for our community for so many years that people did not talk about it,” Bynum told NBC2 at the time. 

Depicted in the series premiere of Watchmen on HBO, the Tulsa race riot is known as one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in American history. Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921, mobs of white residents of Tulsa attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District, which was known at the time as the “Black Wall Street” due to its prosperity. The riot started after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, who was black, was accused of assaulting 17-year-old Sarah Page, who was white. Hundreds were sent to hospitals and thousands to jail before the violence ended when the governor called in the National Guard.

The potential existence of mass graves of victims from the riots has been discussed for decades, as documented in a 2001 report by the Tulsa Reparations Coalition.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 people killed in the violence, but the Tulsa Reparations Coalition found reports of up to 300 dead. The report also mentioned potential locations of mass graves, naming Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery and Booker T. Washington Cemetery. 

The results of the most recent study ruled out Newblock Park as a location but identified Oaklawn Cemetery and the Canes, a heavily wooded area along the Arkansas River, as potential common graves associated with the massacre. The study emphasized that archaeological testing and excavation were necessary to confirm the existence of such graves. 

The Booker T. Washington Cemetery, owned privately, was not examined in the investigation. NBC News reports that the city is working to get permission from the cemetery’s owners to scan the grounds. 

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