The Tulsa Race Riot: A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Tulsa Race Riot "A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten"
September 16, 2003

The Tulsa Race Riot made national and even international news headlines. Afterward, postcards depicting scenes of the burning could be purchased on the street, but the race riot soon became an embarrassment for the city and a painful memory for the blacks, and so was not spoken of for many years. It wasn't until the 75th anniversary of the riot that Tulsa first publicly acknowledged the event. In 1997, state representative Don Scott (D-Tulsa) introduced legislation into the Oklahoma House of Representatives to create the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission. Comprised of 11 members including survivors, historians, lawmakers, and community members, the multiracial commission was designed to research the race riot and make suggestions of how the city should deal with the issue. The commission investigated the riot, locating and interviewing many survivors and descendants, and searching through stacks of historical documents and records.

[image]November 1999 photograph shows, left to right, Veneice Dunn Sims, now 99, a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot; Michael Rosenbaum, Senior Producer of 60 Minutes II; Eddie Faye Gates, Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot. (Courtesy of Eddie Faye Gates) [LARGER IMAGE]

Renewed interest in the riot brought with it interest in seeking justice. In 1994, the state of Florida paid monetary reparations to survivors of the 1922 Rosewood, Florida, race riot, and that case stood as an example for the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. On February 4, 2000, they passed a resolution seeking monetary reparations for the survivors and descendants of the victims, saying it would be "good public policy." It was met with much criticism in Tulsa, and reparations were not granted. Officials opposed to giving the reparations--estimated at $33 million--argued that the state could not be held accountable, and therefore should not be responsible for paying compensation. State Senator and commission member Robert Milacek voted against reparations, fearing that it could set a precedent for other communities to seek them for past injustices. "If you do this for Tulsa, where do you stop? ...with the Native Americans, you could go on forever" (Associated Press, November 23, 1999). Citizens echoed these feelings in the Tulsa World's "Call the Editor" column. "I am 43 years old, and I have nothing to do with the Tulsa race riot. I'll be damned if my money pays for anybody's reparations." Another claimed to be Native American and asked, "my ancestors' villages were burned, their land was stolen, and they were murdered. Where do I sign up for reparations?" When the commission's report was released on February 28, 2001, it again recommended reparations, without naming a specific figure. On June 1, 2001, Governor Frank Keating (R) signed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act. The Act recognized the event but ignored the request for reparations. Instead, gold-plated medals bearing the state seal were given to each survivor.

Unlike Mountain Meadows or Sand Creek, 122 survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot are living today. But the truth is no more complete, as conflicting oral histories and incomplete documents still leave many holes in the Tulsa Race Riot story. Eyewitness accounts recall the presence of airplanes flying over the riot dropping incendiary bombs that left buildings below in flames, but no solid evidence to back up these claims has ever been found. As with the LDS Church in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Commission report suggests there was an intentional government and media effort to cover up the shameful and embarrassing events of the riot. Perhaps the most striking discrepancy is in the number of deaths caused by the riot. City records show that about three dozen blacks died as a result of the riot, while historians now estimate there were anywhere between 100 and 300 deaths. In February 1999, archaeologists began a geophysical survey using ground-penetrating radar to identify possible locations of mass burials. One man recalled a crate being dumped into an unmarked part of Oaklawn Cemetery, matching a site where the radar detected an anomaly. Oklahoma's state archaeologist Bob Brooks, understanding the importance of the site and possible impact on many in Tulsa, prepared a detailed plan of action to present to the city including the identification of race, the cause of death, and reburial.

In order to get closer to the truth of what happened in 1921, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission gave permission at the end of 1999 to dig a small trench to identify the anomaly in Oaklawn Cemetery, but then reversed its decision. The 2001 commission report recommends that the anomaly be investigated, but sidesteps the issue of excavation, suggesting that at the discretion of the city and the community of Greenwood, "limited physical investigation of the feature be undertaken to clarify whether it indeed represents a mass grave. This is not a recommendation to exhume any remains but to clarify the nature of this anomaly." Later the report recognizes that "the actual character of the anomaly can only be confirmed by physical examination of the subsurface through excavation." Eddie Faye Gates, who served on the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, says that the commission decided not to go ahead with the excavation because there were records of babies buried nearby. The commission did not want to disturb innocent graves, and did not want the bad press if those graves were disturbed.

In February 2003, a legal tem led by Johnnie Cochran and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree Jr. filed a reparations lawsuit on behalf of the survivors and descendants of victims and survivors of the Race Riot, based on the findings of the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission report. The pro-bono legal team accused the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Police Department, and the state of Oklahoma of not protecting its citizens and deputizing the white mob by supplying weapons. The lawsuit claims that officials failed to take action and further abused their power to "propagate the riot and empower the rioting white mob."

[image]Left to right: Johnnie Cochran, Tulsa Race Riot lawsuit attorney; Eddie Faye Gates; Kevin Gates, Tulsa businessman. (Courtesy of Eddie Faye Gates) [LARGER IMAGE]

If the anomaly in Oaklawn Cemetery proves to be a mass grave, its excavation could affect both writing the history of the Tulsa Race Riot and the current lawsuit. Bob Brooks said, "what we might learn would be quite similar to the types of information obtained from current forensic studies ranging from air tragedies to criminal investigations." Archaeology could help expose the truth of what happened in Tulsa by better estimating the number of victims, revealing the role of the city in disposing of the bodies, and analyzing victims to expose modes of death. Eddie Faye Gates, who is now the liaison between the survivors and descendants, and Johnnie Cochran's legal team, points out the lack of existing or consistent records, and oral histories only now beginning to be considered evidence. Gates has interviewed over 200 survivors and 300 descendants, and believes that archaeology could help "give credibility to the stories of the survivors," fill holes in the incomplete historical record. The existence of a grave would show beyond question how blacks were treated, and, according to Brooks, would "undoubtedly have an impact on both their case (evidence) as well as public opinion."

Gates is optimistic that archaeology will help to accurately explain the past, and also to provide a sense of closure to the descendants of victims. In speaking to the survivors and descendants, she found that most would like tangible proof of their family members who died in the riot--something that can be touched, properly buried, and provide assurance that their late family members are under their care. Gates poignantly tells of 100-year-old Otis Clark who had not seen his stepfather since the night of the riot. He shared with Gates his desire to find his stepfather's remains: "I just want to know where so I can stand over him." In another interview, survivor Rosa Davis Skinner told Mrs. Gates about a family friend who, the day of the riot, had a baby that died at birth. The mother put the baby in a shoebox with plan of burying it that night. Instead, the riot broke out and the baby was lost in the hysteria. In the report, renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow writes about a baby in a shoebox that was brought to the mortuary by police the day after the riot. The infant was recorded in mortuary records as a black male with no sign of trauma, and was therefore confirmed stillborn, matching the story told to Mrs. Gates by Rosa Davis Skinner. Ms. Skinner recounted the madness of the riot, and said "not a day goes by when I don't think about that poor little baby." Although Mrs. Skinner passed away before the commission report, Mrs. Gates said, "In my heart I just say rest in peace, we know where he is."

[image]"Supersnoop" Hoover (LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto) [LARGER IMAGE]

May 2003: In a recent development, Jim Lloyd, a Tulsa lawyer and former member of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission is suing the children of the late editor of the Tulsa Tribune and heirs to its fortune. Lloyd argues that the newspaper incited the riot with its inflammatory front-page editorial entitled "To Lynch Negro Tonight," of which no copy can be found. The best evidence is a hole cut out of the Tulsa public library's copy of the paper. The lawsuit also names Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard as aiding in inciting the riot, and more names are added as Lloyd continues his research. The Tribune stopped printing in 1992, when it was purchased by the Tulsa World. In a June 18, 2003, interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Lloyd explained how he seeks help from J. Edgar Hoover in locating the missing editorial. Lloyd chose the former FBI director, who died in 1972, because he was "such a supersnoop."

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America