In this year of its centennial, and in the midst of a national reckoning on race relations, the suppressed memory of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre has, after a long absence, returned to the national consciousness.
Yet, despite the attention belatedly being paid by the white community — the memory of the destruction of the Greenwood district, known then as the “Black Wall Street,” had been kept alive, even if seldom spoken of, by Black Tulsans — remarkably little is known about the individuals who lost their lives.
Even their final resting place is, too often, a mystery — one I am trying to unravel as a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida and the descendent of a Tulsa Massacre survivor.
There are hundreds of missing people for whom we have little or no indication of where they were buried. The explanations are varied. There are apparently credible reports of mass burials where the remains of the dead were not identified. But in some instances, the explanation may be found in the history of the segregated South; even “Potter’s Fields” were divided by race, and in Tulsa, the white poor were buried in a more orderly way, with better records, than their Black neighbors.
Poverty itself seems also to have played a role. Too often, proper grave markers were simply unaffordable. And in other instances, Black cemeteries were left untended when entire families decamped for the North during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century.
A hundred years later, why does it matter? Obscured, unidentified, and hidden Black lives matter. The most immediate need is for the descendants and other family members of those who experienced the massacre — including my own great-aunt, who lost her house in the attacks. At long last, they would like to learn the fate of their ancestors and accord them a proper memorial.
But there is a wider importance in reversing the erasure from our collective memory of the society built by Black people in the decades following the Civil War and enduring even through the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. Though the massacre in Tulsa was particularly violent, it was not isolated. It came after a two-year period of deadly race riots against returning Black veterans in dozens of American cities after World War I, including the nation’s capital.
The attacks were not secret and were extensively, even luridly, covered in the media of the day, yet they have been erased from our collective memories. Even those Americans who think they know the history of that postwar era would likely be able to describe Woodrow Wilson’s failed battle for the League of Nations, the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the Roaring Twenties, but would draw a blank on this national wave of domestic terrorism. I didn’t even learn about my own great-aunt’s loss until my parents learned I was working on this project.
We must undo this erasure. In Tulsa, with the support of Mayor G.T. BynumG.T. BynumTulsa marks race massacre centennial as US grapples with racial injustice My search for the Tulsa Massacre's missing dead Lawsuit seeks reparations from city of Tulsa over 1921 massacre MORE and the city of Tulsa, I have been part of a group of archaeologists and forensic scientists who are working to uncover this past. We have conducted test excavations and extracted soil cores from three different areas of Oaklawn Cemetery where mass graves or other remains from the Tulsa Massacre were suspected, based in part on the childhood recollection of a witness. Our work revealed modifications to the cemetery landscape, various household and cemetery artifacts, and most recently, a mass grave.
One of the sites is known as the “Original 18” area for the 18 Black adult males known to have been killed in the massacre and buried by the white-owned Stanley McCune and Mowbry Mortuaries, which charged the city $25 for each burial but failed to identify exactly where the bodies were buried. Test excavations revealed a mass grave with at least 12 but possibly more than 30 individuals. More investigation is needed to confirm the dimensions of the mass grave, to recover information from the remains themselves, and determine whether they do, in fact, include victims of the 1921 massacre.
What can we learn from these long-dead bones? We can document trauma. We can determine sex and approximate age. If there are signs of trauma and gunshot wounds, we would have at least circumstantial evidence that these are victims of the massacre.
But by carrying this work forward, we can do even more. By restoring history, we can make history. We can give Black Tulsans, who have remained wary and apart from the white community, a new opportunity to see that this is their city, too. We can honor the memory of the victims of the massacre, some of whom were veterans of World War I yet were thrown away into unmarked graves as insurrectionists. And we can play a small part in reversing the pattern of erasure that has befallen Black cemeteries throughout the South resulting from the combined forces of bigotry, poverty, and abandonment.
A century after they were murdered, the heroes and defenders of Greenwood remain missing. There is no more fitting or essential way to commemorate this centennial than to continue the effort to find them.
Dr. Phoebe R. Stubblefield is a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida.