Tulsa Mayor Launches Probe Into Possible Mass Grave from 1921 Race Riot

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has called for a renewed investigation into possible mass graves from what has become known as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

“It is the great tragedy in the history of our city,” Bynum said of the massacre that took hundreds of lives over 100 years ago. “It’s something that was such a point of shame for our community for so many years that people did not talk about it.”

According to Tulsa station KJRH, Bynum had previously launched a probe after learning of the possibility of the mass graves as a city councilor back in 2012. Nothing ever came of it, however. Now, he is calling on the city to look into a section of the Oaklawn Cemetery that doesn’t have marked graves, suspecting there might be a mass grave site underneath.

“This is a murder investigation,” Bynum added. “Whether you were murdered in 2018 or 1921, the city will do everything we can to find out what happened with you and bring that to justice.”

In a separate interview with the Tulsa World, the mayor said he believes “the victims and their families” of the race riot out to know if there are mass graves there. The new probe will examine the cemetery, as well as Newblock Park and Booker T. Washington Cemetery. Officials will work to determine where there’s a mass grave at all and if there is, identifying what kind of mass grave it is.

“Is it a pauper’s grave, or is it a true mass grave from the massacre?” Bynum said. “If it is a mass grave from the massacre, then we want to do a forensic examination on the bodies that are there to hopefully identify them and their causes of death.”

“I think all of that will help inform a greater understanding around what happened in 1921,” he added.

Before the events of that fateful day — May 31, 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was known for its thriving middle-class and successful Black-owned businesses. Though stringent segregation laws were in place and the Ku Klux Klan was making a comeback, Greenwood was sort of a haven for Black families at the time.

Things quickly unraveled, however, after a young Black man named Dick Rowlands was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. News of the alleged assault spread fast, only exacerbating already high racial tensions. Rowlands was arrested, and word spread that an angry white mob was on its way to find him and lynch him.

The day-long attack on Greenwood raged on, as the angry mobs clashed with armed Black men in the streets. When it was all said and done, the white mobs had destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses, setting fire to libraries, movie theaters, schools, and even churches.

NPR reported there were several conflicting accounts of the riot, but initial estimates put the death toll somewhere around 85. However, later reports said as many as 350 people had died in the violence.

Rashad Woodrow, whose late grandmother, Hazel Jones, is one of the last known survivors of the riot, said he feels she would see the investigation as a step in the right direction.

“I feel like those victims, they deserve a proper burial,” Woodrow told KJRH. “That’s the first step in us coming together as one in Tulsa and the fact that Tulsa is finally accepting accountability for what happened.”