Nearly 100 years ago gangs of racists—with the help of local police—terrorized an affluent African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was known as Black Wall Street. The event was largely ignored by mainstream historians for the past century and the true extent of the violence that took place is still being fully realized.
The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics initially attempted to downplay the deadly nature of the attacks and officially recorded 39 dead. However, the American Red Cross, who was on the ground at the time, estimated the actual death toll to be as much as 300.
This week, scientists in Oklahoma announced that they may have found evidence of a mass grave linked to the massacre. Researchers used ground-penetrating radar to survey two sites around historical Black Wall Street and found what were described as “irregularities” that could indicate large-scale burials.
The researchers say that they discovered what they believe to be an underground pit that is roughly 30 by 25 feet, which they estimate is large enough to hold about 100 bodies.
According to CBS, Scott Hammerstedt, a senior researcher at the Oklahoma Archeological Survey said of the find:
“I’m as confident as I can be in the results that this is a very big candidate for something associated with the massacre.”
“For decades it was hush-hush,” photojournalist Kavin Ross told CBS News. “Even some of the survivors that I interviewed, they were quiet and telling me, ‘Oh and the white people—’ They were whispering in their own homes because they were brought up not talking about what happened.'”
Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum responded to his comments:
“That’s very powerful. That’s the first time that we’ve had anyone say that from a technical standpoint in an open forum, in a meeting like this or to us.”
Researchers estimate that they will be able to start excavating the area sometime next year. If they are able to find remains during the excavation, members of the community in Tulsa say that these remains should be moved to Vernon A.M.E. Church, one of the few buildings to survive the terrorism of 1921.
The attacks on the community were sparked by an accusation that a black man attempted to rape a white woman. Although the man accused of the crime was arrested and awaiting judgment, a mob of angry racists did not want to wait for the suspect to see a fair trial, and instead wanted the entire black community to pay for the alleged crimes of one man. At the courthouse, innocent black bystanders were attacked by a mob and forced to retreat.
The mob then descended on “Black Wall Street,” setting fires to buildings and shooting people indiscriminately, creating a night of terror throughout the city. Airplanes circled the sky dropping kerosene and nitroglycerin on the buildings and people below, according to survivors of the attack.
Authorities did nothing to stop the violence, and in fact, actually assisted the mob by only arresting black people. Some reports have even indicated that the police also engaged in violence, possibly even flying planes responsible for the bombings.
These events came to be known as the Tulsa Race Riots, but as many survivors have pointed out, calling them “riots” just serves to remove responsibility from the mob and from the police that protected them.