Tulsa, OK

The Tulsa Race Riot Massacre: Where Justice Stands Over 100 Years Later

Yani Bearpaw

A view of the Tulsa skyline today.Mick Haupt/Unspash

In 1921, more than 35 square blocks in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, became the scene of one of the most devastating racially-motivated criminal events in United States history. More than 100 years later, survivors and descendants await justice.

It was called Black Wall Street. It was home to a prosperous community of African Americans and boasted more than 300 Black-owned businesses and 2 hospitals.

There are varying accounts of what transpired on May 31, 1921, that led to the arrest of a young Black man. The only truth that exists today is that nobody owns the real truth. What we do know is that later all charges were dismissed, but not before hundreds of lives were lost, the exact count we may never know. Businesses were reportedly bombed from the air and over 1200 residences were set ablaze and burned to the ground.

In two days a once prosperous community lost its economic footing. For the majority of the next century, the Greenwood District would be known for its poverty rather than its prosperity.

It's been over 101 years that have passed. Many people believe that the survivors and their descendants should still receive justice. Many others don't.

The Race Riot Commission

Seventy-six years after the event, the State of Oklahoma delegated a commission to formally investigate and document the events that occured over those two days. The commission was tasked with finding answers to many unanswered questions, such as how many lives were lost, where were the bodies buried, and who, if anyone was culpable.

Four years later, in 2001, after interviewing a rapidly dwindling number of remaining survivors and scouring numerous historical documents, their findings barely scratched the surface. What it did reveal was expected. A minority group of people, before, during, and even in the days following, were treated as less than citizens. It was black people who lost their homes and businesses. It was black people who were cleared off the streets under Marshal Law. It was black people who weren't allowed to perform funerals for their deceased. It was black people who were placed in temporary concentration camps.

The Search for Mass Graves

Through witness interviews and funeral home records, four locations were recognized as potential sites for the remains of buried victims. Amazingly, it would take another 17 years for anyone to act on that information.

In 2018, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum announced a search would begin for mass grave sites. With the assistance of forensic archeological teams the search officially began in 2020. The four identified sites will have been examined before the search is concluded: Oaklawn cemetery, two locations in Newblock Park, and Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens.

In 2021, 30 graves were found at Oaklawn, but only 19 were considered to be viable for further testing. The bodies included 8 men, 6 women, and 5 children. One body belonged to a man with gunshot wounds to the shoulders and head. That body was considered to be in good condition. The other remains were considered to be in poor condition as they were brittle and falling apart.

The challenge now is tying the victims to the massacre. Earlier this year the bodies were sent to a lab in Utah to extract DNA, making it important for descendents to give DNA samples to investigators as well as any family accounts. The investigators plan to extend their search of Oaklawn as well as move their search to the other identified locations. No timeline is set for when these future searches are to begin.

The Reparations Lawsuit

If the actions of the State of Oklahoma and the City of Tulsa have proven anything in the last century, it's that they're in no hurry when it comes to anything relating to the Tulsa Race Riot turned massacre. As of this date there are three remaining survivors and are all over 100 years old: 101, 107, and 108.

Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons has been trying to get the courts to hear his clients' case for the past 20 years. He calls it a case of public nuisance which entitles the victims to compensation. Perhaps the only justice his oldest clients will see is the court ruling in May that allowed for their case to move forward.

The lawsuit seeks to set the historical record straight while also setting up a fund for survivors and descendants. Defendants in the case are City of Tulsa, Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners, Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, Tulsa County Sheriff and Oklahoma Military Department.

The Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker argues against it being a public nuisance case. He says the nuisance is not ongoing. Perhaps he should tell that to the descendants who grew up in poverty and without parents or grandparents.

Lasting Legacy

The Greenwood District lost 2 hospitals over 100 years ago. They have yet to replace just one. Few, if any, of the homeowners and business owners received compensation from insurance because it was called a riot. Or, perhaps it was because they were Black.

What was lost that day–structures, material possessions, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, prosperity–would not be regained during their lifetimes. All accounts from survivors were handed down by word of mouth, and they vary. Any officially recorded accounts come from a white perspective, and as U.S. history has shown, that perspective is oftentimes skewed.

The Future

Today, it's hard to imagine everything that occured when you stand in the Greenwood District. There are positive signs of growth and healing. There's a baseball stadium that's home to the Tulsa Drillers, a farm team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. There are parks, hotels, and trendy restaurants. There's a Black Wall Street History Center. There's a state university. There's a neighboring Arts District.

For sure, it has yet to become the size it once was. Perhaps it never will. But it stands today as a reminder to future generations that people are survivors, and they can overcome, and justice can arrive late, but it's better than never arriving at all.

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