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Tulsa mayor launches probe on 91-year-old race riots

The records vanished from the public’s eye as the blemish known as the 1921 Tulsa race riots plagued Tulsa. Some of the biggest aspects of the 24-hour massacre remain a mystery to residents of the city and the nation, but recent efforts have started to uncover the truth.

On May 31, 1921, a riot began between the white and the black citizens of Tulsa. A little less than a century later, plans are forming to dig up what some believe to be a mass burial site of bodies from that day. According to The History Channel’s website, some facts of the riots are unknown because the Tulsa Tribune removed the front-page story from its records and the police and state militia have no archives about the riot.

Sophomore biology major Dax Grigsby said, “It’s a very important part of American history, and it’s something that isn’t really spoken out about … It’s about time because for the longest time it’s been hidden.”

In recent years, however, more people have actively searched for answers. In 2001, Tulsa established an official Race Riot Commission to determine what happened that day, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Additionally, in February 2018, the commission released curriculum for schools across the state to use in their classrooms.

Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum’s posted on Facebook that he is planning an investigation to focus on the following three main objectives: use modern technology to determine if there are unmarked graves; determine if the bodies appear to be the remains of people who died from the massacre or natural causes; do whatever forensic examination is possible to determine their identities and cause of death.

Bynum said he read a 2012 article about potential grave sites in Tulsa of those who were massacred. He said once he was elected mayor he wanted to uncover more of the truth.

“All Tulsans deserve to know what happened in 1921 – especially the descendants of victims,” Bynum said in his Facebook post. “This is a matter of basic human decency.”

Senior engineering major Abby Acker said this investigation could help bring some closure to those affected by the massacre.

“The effects of the riot have been fully lived out and ended, yet it is still effecting race relations today,” Acker said. “Especially the fact that after [the riot] happened there wasn’t a lot of discussion or acknowledgement of them.”

The riot started on May 31, when police arrested a young black teenager for sexually assaulting a young woman, although he had done nothing to the woman. According to the History Channel, “A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting [a young woman] … As evening fell, an angry white mob was gathering outside the courthouse … Around 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed black men—including many World War I veterans—went to the courthouse to offer help guarding Rowland.”

As more people showed up, shots were fired and chaos broke out. The black citizens—approximately outnumbered 75 to 1,500 whites—retreated to Greenwood, known as the Black Wall Street.

The white mob looted and burned houses and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks, according to the History Channel. Although firefighters arrived to help, they later testified that those rioting threatened them. In a Red Cross report from December of that year, it said that more than 800 people were treated for injuries and the death count ranged from 55 to as many as 300 people.

Bynum’s plan is to discover more about those who died. In his Facebook post, Bynum said that he and his staff have discussed a path forward and are meeting with people to solidify the plans and timelines. They will focus on three main grave sites, Newblock Park, Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Oaklawn Cemetery.

Until the investigation and the reports are published, people can learn about the race riots in other ways. In the Tulsa Historical Museum is an exhibit for the Tulsa Race Riots. Additionally, there is John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in memorial for those killed on that day.