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Archaeologists to search for mass graves from 1921 Tulsa riot

Tulsa riot
On May 31, 1921, white mobs torched Tulsa's black business district; historians believe as many as 300 blacks died  

January 20, 2000
Web posted at: 11:08 p.m. EST (0408 GMT)

In this story:

1,400 homes, businesses in ruins

'Bodies were stacked like cord wood'

Reparations being sought

Restitution not the answer


From Correspondent Charles Zewe

TULSA, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Officials in Oklahoma have given archaeologists permission to search a cemetery for mass graves holding the remains of victims of what is considered the worst act of racial violence in U.S. history -- when white mobs torched Tulsa's African-American business district in 1921.

Archaeologists were given permission Wednesday to dig a 3- foot by 6-foot trench in Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery in their search for the graves.

"Essentially, we're kind of on a fact-finding mission, and our fact is to demonstrate, or be able to determine whether this location is where some of the victims were buried," said state archaeologist Robert Brooks.

The search was ordered by a state race commission that has been probing the riot. The violence broke out following the arrest of a black man whom historians say was wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman.

While official reports put the death toll at 33, historians believe as many as 300 blacks died.

1,400 homes, businesses in ruins

On the night of May 31, 1921, mobs called for the lynching of Dick Rowland, a black man who shined shoes, after hearing reports that on the previous day he had assaulted Sarah Page, a white woman, in the elevator she operated in a downtown building.

Archaeologists plan to dig a trench in the Oaklawn Cemetery in search of mass graves  

A local newspaper had printed a fabricated story that Rowland tried to rape Page. In its editorial, the same newspaper reported that a hanging was planned for that night. As both blacks and whites converged on the Tulsa courthouse, a white man in the crowd confronted an armed black man, a war veteran who had joined with other blacks to protect Rowland.

A scuffle ensued, according to riot commission member Eddie Faye Gates, and, "The gun went off, the white man was dead, the riot was on."

Truckloads of whites set fires and shot blacks on sight. When the smoke lifted the next day, more than 1,400 homes and businesses in the Greenwood district, dubbed the black Wall Street, lay in ruins. Today, only one single block of the original buildings remain standing.

'Bodies were stacked like cordwood'

Many of the survivors "mentioned bodies were stacked like cordwood," said Richard Warner of the Tulsa Historical Society.

Clyde Eddy, who is white, was 10 at the time of the riot. He said he recalls peeking inside large wooden crates at the cemetery and seeing the bodies of black people in one, then looking inside another.

"And there was at least four bodies in that one," said Eddy. "They were really piled up in that one."

Two headstones at the Oaklawn Cemetery indicate that riot victims were buried there. In an effort to determine how many, archaeological experts in May used ground-piercing radar and other equipment to test the soil in a search for unmarked graves. Those tests indicated bodies may be piled on top of each other.

Reparations being sought

The commission is also expected to ask the Oklahoma Legislature to approve a $33 million reparations package.

Seventy-three riot survivors, including Otis Clark, 96, would get $150,000 each.

Clark, who has never seen his stepfather since the riot, believes he deserves the restitution.

"Our homes got burned up, and we did never get nothing," said Clark.

"Too many people -- too many of my ancestors that are on the other side -- need some form of making a wrong a right," said riot commissioner Currie Ballard.

The Oklahoma proposal is patterned after a $2 million restitution package that was paid six years ago to survivors of a 1923 mob attack on blacks in Rosewood, Florida.

In that attack, the Rosewood community was destroyed after a white woman accused a black man of assaulting her. Eight people were confirmed killed, but the death toll may have been higher.

Restitution not the answer

There is strong opposition to reparations.

State Sen. Robert Milacek said, "Where do you stop? How can you pick out one particular area and say, 'There was a loss of property here. Let's pay these people for their loss,' and then ignore all the others?"

At the least, commission members want the state to rebury riot victims and build a memorial to what happened -- a memorial to serve as a constant reminder of the cost of bigotry.

Tulsa panel seeks truth from 1921 race riot
August 3, 1999
Inter-racial repentance marks Tulsa riot anniversary
June 2, 1998
Nation's capital still recovering from 1968 riots
April 4, 1998
Indonesian city calm after two days of race riots
September 17, 1997
Panel: Killing that sparked riots was justified
November 13, 1996

The Tulsa Race Riot, 1921
History in Tulsa, OK
Tulsa race riot omitted from history books
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