Tulsa Race Massacre’s survivors and descendants demand reparations.
Amidst the 100-year anniversary of what is called the Tulsa Race Massacre, the remains of a man riddled with bullet wounds was excavated in late June. The unearthing occurred from an area of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Oaklawn Cemetery, a long-suspected site of mass, unmarked graves of possible massacre victims.
Known as “Black Wall Street,” some residents struck big in oil discoveries on their properties, while others built lucrative businesses in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, which was the African American section of the Midwestern city. Their fortunes turned to tragedy from May 31 through June 1, 1921 when angry white mobs annihilated their neighborhoods. Whites indiscriminately murdered Black residents and burned down blocks. At some point, airplanes operated at the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Company were dispatched to drop turpentine or nitroglycerine bombs on the community.
After years of silence, the massacre is now receiving a significant amount of news media coverage and public attention. Today, the few massacre survivors still alive and descendants are making use of the resurgence of awareness to make their case for reparations. The demand is to be compensated for the destruction of homes and businesses, as well as the plunder of families and individuals.
On June 25, Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic scientist at the University of Florida and a team leader in the excavation and examination of remains from the massacre period, told news conference reporters that the remains of the man had a marking in the shoulder from a bullet, other markings made “multiple projectile wounds,” she said.
The remains were initially discovered in October 2020, but the scientific team searching for massacre victims’ remains, had to obtain permission from a judge to have bodies removed for forensic analysis.
“Hell was unleashed”
President Joe Biden met with the three remaining survivors during the 100-year commemoration. His appearance was the first time a U.S. President visited Tulsa on the anniversary of the massacre. “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre,” said Biden in a speech following the meeting. “Among the worst in our history but not the only one. And for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened, there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory, our collective memory.”
Even after a century, memories of the massacre persisted for the three survivors of the massacre, who testified on May 19 before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” recalled Viola Fletcher, 107, who was seven years old the year of the massacre. “I still see Black men being shot. Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still see airplanes flying overhead (dropping bombs on buildings). I hear the screams. I live through the massacre every day.”
“Our family was driven from our home. We were left with nothing,” said Hughes Van Ellis, 100, Fletcher’s brother. He told the subcommittee that the efforts to receive compensation by survivors like him, and their descendants, were unsuccessful in Oklahoma courts. Added to their loss, the federal courts provided no relief, telling them they were “too late,” Ellis said. “We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice. That we were less valued than whites. That we were not fully American.”
Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, was six and living with her grandmother at the time of the Tulsa Race Massacre. She remembered Greenwood as “a beautiful Black community.” In her testimony she said that “everything changed” in the days Greenwood’s residents experienced extreme racial terrorism. “White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them?” She also recalled troops rounded up Black people and forced them to stay on fairgrounds in Tulsa.
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Some have speculated that whites were jealous of those Black residents of Greenwood who were doing well economically. Others guessed that it was part of a greater scheme to take the land and enrich the white communities through gentrification. But Dr. Scott Ellsworth, a history professor at the University of Michigan and a native of Tulsa, said the massacre was caused by a rumor that a Black man had raped a white woman.
The story centered on Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, who on May 30, 1921, boarded an elevator at the Drexel Building on Tulsa’s South Main Street. The elevator operator was a 17-year-old white girl, Sarah Page. At some point, Page screamed, and Rowland ran from the elevator. The police were called, and they arrested Rowland on May 31. Rumors swirled that Rowland had raped Page.
That evening, an armed crowd of white men came to the jail and demanded Rowland’s release, said Dr. Ellsworth. The authorities refused. A group of armed Black men, most of whom were World War I veterans, arrived to guard Rowland, but they were told to leave. Another group of 75 armed Black men who were also veterans of World War I showed up. The white group had grown to more than 1,000.
Outnumbered, the Black men fled to Greenwood, the white crowd went after them, burning and killing as they went. On June 1, thousands of whites went to Greenwood and continued to destroy it.
As the massacre ended, police dropped charges against Rowland, determining that he accidentally tripped and fell against Page, but nothing else happened. Neither Rowland nor Page were heard from, or about, again.
Dr. Ellsworth, 67, said in the years following the massacre, no one in Tulsa would talk about it. “There was a coverup,” he told Ark. “I remember when I was a child coming into a roomful of adults who were having a conversation. They would see me and lower their voices or change the subject.” Convinced that Tulsa was hiding something, Dr. Ellsworth, at age 12, and some friends of his, went to a local library and
researched Tulsa newspapers on microfilm. “Somehow I knew that a race riot, or whatever it was, happened in 1921,” he said. On the first microfilm reel of newspapers from that year he saw the front page of a June 1921 Tulsa World. “We were just flabbergasted. There were these big headlines, ‘Race Riot in City, 75 Killed,’ ‘Martial Law Declared,’ ‘State Troops Arrive.’”
In 1975, between his junior and senior year of college, Dr. Ellsworth returned to Tulsa to conduct research on the massacre for his senior thesis. He interviewed some survivors. In 1982 he went back to Tulsa as a graduate student and interviewed more survivors. He turned his graduate thesis into a book, “Death in a Promised Land,” the first ever comprehensive history of the massacre. He has just published a second book on the subject, “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.”
Digging for evidence
The search for remains from the Tulsa Race Massacre began 20 years ago, said Dr. Stubblefield in a recent Time interview. Dr. Ellsworth, who had written his dissertation on the massacre, met with archaeologists in Oklahoma and massacre survivors to discuss where the victims could have been buried. “From newspaper documentation, we knew that on June 2  that they were burying people they were calling insurrectionists in Oaklawn Cemetery, in the Black potters’ field,” said Dr. Stubblefield.
“We’ve surveyed another site, Newblock Park, multiple times, and have not gotten good signals. Rolling Oaks is another area of particular interest, because we haven’t surveyed it yet; [in there] would be individuals who have not been identified, and who knows the state of remains, because these would be people probably hidden in burned debris.”
The excavation of massacre victims stalled until 2019, when Tulsa’s current mayor, G.T. Bynum, requested it. The first of the remains were found last October in Oaklawn Cemetery. Dr. Ellsworth said that people asserting that the remains are merely those of unidentified individuals
with no connection to the massacre would have a difficult time proving it. “We have the death
certificates,” said Dr. Lesley Rankin-Hill, a former physical anthropology professor at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the commission’s investigative team. Death certificates for 19 people obtained from a local funeral home may match the remains found in the coffins all buried together in a potter’s field section of Oaklawn Cemetery, where remains of indigent people are usually placed.
“We take the remains to a lab and determine the gender and age,” Dr. Rankin-Hill explained to Ark. “We examine DNA. If the bones are so deteriorated that we can’t extract DNA we look for it in the teeth.” They can also identify ancestry by a “suite” of characteristics. “For example, people of African descent tend to have long skulls,” she said. The investigative team will try to match the DNA with that of massacre victims’ descendants, Dr. Rankin-Hill added.
Whether the remaining survivors of the massacre or their descendants will ever obtain reparations remains an unanswered question. “Like the rest of the nation, people in Tulsa are bitterly divided about reparations,” said Dr. Ellsworth.
Tulsa’s Mayor Bynum, a Republican, opposes cash reparations, favoring alternative ways to resolve economic and other disparities between Black and white Tulsans. In a Tulsa World interview, he said if the descendants won monetary relief through the courts, the money would have to come from taxes levied on Tulsa’s current population, white and Black, even the victims’ descendants.
But massacre survivor Randle said during her House subcommittee testimony that Tulsa has the funds to spend on “making the city look good. . . Just because the men who committed those acts of destroying Greenwood and killing its residents are dead now, the city and county of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma, and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce are still responsible for making it right because it was they who caused the massacre.”
Meanwhile, the search for remains of massacre victims ended on June 25. Dr. Stubblefield said parts of the Oaklawn Cemetery were “shockingly under-documented,” making it difficult to determine if all the remains which were excavated were those of Tulsa Race Massacre victims or not. The investigation is now in the hands of the scientists who will clean the bones, analyze their DNA and if possible, find their descendants or match them to funeral homes’ records.
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