“Tulsa feels intensely humiliated and, standing in the shadow of this great tragedy, pledges its every effort to wiping out the stain at the earliest possible moment and punishing those guilty of bringing the disgrace and disaster to this city. A city which … can be depended upon to make proper restitution and to bring order out of chaos at the earliest possible moment.”
— Alva J. Niles, president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, on June 2, 1921, in a public statement made to press associations preceding a special meeting of the Chamber members and directors*
Most drivers heading north on Highway 75 zoom over East 11th Street with little notice of Oaklawn Cemetery below. At street level, the grounds are calm for an urban graveyard near the heart of the city.
But traffic rumbles overhead like thunder following a lightning strike. And there, in the literal shadow of the highway, waits a patch of overturned dirt marked with yellow caution tape.
This is the site of at least one of Tulsa’s unmarked mass graves with a possible connection to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which white mobs destroyed 35 blocks of the city’s prominent Black community of Greenwood.
A full excavation of the City of Tulsa-owned Oaklawn site will begin June 1, exactly one century after what has been called one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
While Tulsa prepares to dig for the bodies of as many as 300 Black victims of the Massacre, racial disparities and division continue to reverberate.
Heavy in the air are many Black Tulsans’ calls for reparations: repayment of what was taken from the three remaining Massacre survivors, now ages 100-106, as well as descendants of the victims. They feel their opportunity to build generational wealth burned to the ground May 31-June 1, 1921, along with their ancestors’ homes and businesses.
For decades many Tulsans, both white and Black, were not taught about Tulsa’s Massacre. Now through popular entertainment such as HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” as well as other art, film and TV projects set to release around the centennial, its injustices are being broadcast to the world.
By many counts, Tulsa’s time of reckoning is here.
Dirt is turned
Kavin Ross was in elementary school when he first saw a photo of a dead Black man whose body was burned beyond recognition. Taken in 1921 Greenwood, the image had been made into a postcard.
“They (white Tulsans) took pictures of the Massacre, and then they made postcards out of them as a reminder, an ‘If you do this again, we’re going to do this again’ type of a thing,” Ross says. “I remember as a young child looking at these pictures of the horror. I couldn’t believe it was my own hometown.”
As Ross grew up, he continued to learn about the Massacre through the work of his father, Don Ross, a civil rights activist and journalist who later served as an Oklahoma representative from 1983-2003, as well as through his own extensive research. In the early 2000s, Kavin worked with historian and author Eddie Faye Gates to record the testimonies of Massacre survivors.
Don and Kavin were involved in the “Tulsa Race Riot Commission” created by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1997, and in 1998 a limited investigation began into long-held stories of Massacre victims being buried in mass graves. But the search was discontinued by then-Mayor Susan Savage, who said she was concerned about disturbing graves to excavate the site. It was not picked back up until 2018, when Mayor G.T. Bynum announced the City of Tulsa would do its part to try to find Massacre victims.
In the meantime, Kavin Ross has never stopped investigating. In addition to writing many articles over the years, he has taken thousands of photos documenting the history of the Massacre and possible locations where the dead might be buried.
Now he is chairman of the 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee comprised of Black Tulsans and descendants of Massacre victims, who were appointed by the mayor to oversee the physical graves investigation. Ross’ great-grandparents owned the Zulu Lounge juke joint, which sat where Interstate 244 now crosses North Greenwood Avenue until it was destroyed in the Massacre.
Tulsa “would have been ahead of the game had we looked underneath the ground of Tulsa for Massacre victims in the late ’90s,” Ross says, adding, “We would have been way ahead of the game as far as race relations in our city.”
The time certainly didn’t help the physical investigation. After 100 years of decomposition, remains will be difficult to identify, caution researchers. The best chance for DNA analysis, which would determine whether the individuals were Black or white, and could connect to descendants, may be in any teeth or long bones found at the burial site, according to forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, part of the physical investigation committee.
The first step is determining whether those interred are, in fact, victims of the Massacre, as opposed to another event like the Spanish flu. The team, which also includes historians and the state archaeologist, will look for signs of trauma, as well as bullet fragments indicating violence, Stubblefield says.
Amy Brown, Tulsa’s deputy mayor, is the liaison between the City of Tulsa and the physical investigation and public oversight committees. She says evidence — including finding human remains and at least 12 coffins during an October test excavation — points to the Oaklawn site as a mass burial associated with the Massacre.
Although Bynum has repeatedly called the search for the 1921 graves “a murder investigation,” feedback on his social media updates indicate some Tulsans do not support the search, which the City is funding. However, Brown is not particularly concerned.
“Ultimately, we feel like there’s a duty to carry out that work that hasn’t been carried out over the last century,” she says. “I don’t know that there’s anything we do as a city, whether it’s adding bike lanes, or sidewalks … where all Tulsans are in 100% agreement.
“We just try to do the most good we can for the most people. And I really hope that in 10, 20, 30, 100 years, Tulsans will look back and be proud of their city for doing this work in 2021.”
Prolonging Greenwood’s destitution
While the Massacre cost an untold number of Black Tulsans their lives, it also is impossible to quantify the trauma experienced by survivors. Their physical loss alone is staggering.
Approximately 10,000 Black Tulsans became homeless overnight in the summer of 1921, according to the Red Cross, which in the days following the Massacre set up relief stations and remained for seven months to serve the wounded and displaced.
In its detailed report of the disaster dated Dec. 31, 1921, the Red Cross counted 1,256 buildings burned; 314 buildings (mostly homes) looted and robbed; 183 people in the hospital, mostly from gunshot wounds or burns; and 531 people injured.
Personal property loss was estimated at $3.5 million, according to the Red Cross report. That is $51.8 million in today’s dollars.
Insurance companies cited “riot clauses” and withheld payment for damages to Greenwood homes and businesses, while City ordinances were instituted to stifle rebuilding, prolonging the destitution of Massacre survivors. Further, “No provision was made for money grants or loans, neither were any moneys available for permanent rebuilding,” according to the Red Cross.
From internment facilities like Convention Hall (now known as the Tulsa Theater), where Massacre survivors were initially held by the Oklahoma National Guard, Black Tulsans were housed in emergency tent homes. Some Greenwood residents eventually built wooden structures with materials purchased by the Red Cross and with funding from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But by the end of the 1921, 49 families still resided in tents; 100 were reported to still need constant help as a result of the Massacre.
According to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report, more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the City and insurance companies. All that would have benefited Black Tulsans were disallowed. In the meantime, Greenwood was physically and economically devastated.
Although many business owners eventually rebuilt their ventures in Greenwood, some were never the same. James Nails Sr. owned Nails Brothers Shoe Shop and Record Shop on North Greenwood Avenue, as well as James Nails Dance Pavilion, the first dance and recreation center for Black residents in north Tulsa, at the site of present-day Lacy Park.
“It’s one of the things he never got over,” related Nails’ daughter, the late Cecelia Nails Palmer, in a 1977 interview with Jan Jennings Sparks and Ruth Sigler Avery. “All of his instruments were burned in the riot in the pavilion. He owned them. He had an orchestra. All of his equipment was burned up or torn up, and he never did recover from that. In a sense he left Tulsa a very beaten and dehumanized person. … Tulsa was not a happy place for him. He was never able to become the person that he was.”
Nails Palmer, who was 2 years old when she fled the Massacre, also described her family heirlooms, including a hand-carved piano. “I’d give anything to have it now,” she recalled. “They were destroyed during the riot. Much of the furniture came from my grandmother, and it was all handmade.”
Ross says his great-grandfather Isaac Evitts “went broke” and lost the family’s land trying to rebuild his juke joint after the Massacre. “That was my inheritance. I’ve been robbed of my inheritance,” Ross says. “Who’s to say that today I couldn’t be, right now, the owner of the Zulu Lounge? … I have fantasies to this day of someday having a Zulu Lounge on Greenwood in honor of my family’s legacy.”
Righting the wrongs
It has been two decades since the Tulsa Race Riot Commission made five recommendations to the state for restitution to the citizens of Greenwood. Only one recommendation was enacted: to build a memorial for Massacre victims. John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, 321 N. Detroit Ave., was dedicated in 2010 to tell the story of the Massacre and of African Americans’ role in building Oklahoma.
Ignored were the Commission’s recommendations for direct payments of reparations to be paid to the survivors of the Massacre, direct payments of reparations to be paid to descendants of survivors, creation of a scholarship fund available to students affected by the Massacre, and establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the Greenwood District.
In September 2020, a group of attorneys led by Tulsan Damario Solomon-Simmons filed a lawsuit in Tulsa County District Court against the City of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Tulsa County Commission and others for “the public nuisance caused by (the) defendants’ unlawful acts and omissions that began with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and continues to this day.” The suit was filed on behalf of the three remaining Massacre survivors, Lessie Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis; descendants of other Massacre victims; Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Tulsa African Ancestral Society, which also is comprised of descendants.
The litigation alleges the defendants “exploited the Massacre for their economic and political gain” and asks for repayment of property lost in the event, as well as the development of mental health, educational and “quality of life” programs for Greenwood and north Tulsa residents, among other requests.
The lawsuit is not the first to be filed for Massacre reparations; the most prominent was dismissed in 2003 due to the long-expired statute of limitations on civil cases.
Although many Tulsans are skeptical about the possibility of a Massacre reparations program in Tulsa, some point to historical reparations for other groups. “We paid the Confederacy after the Civil War,” says the Rev. Robert Turner, minister of Vernon AME Church. “After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we put Japanese Americans in internment camps. But in the 1980s, under a Republican president, they got reparations. We definitely have not honored our treaties with the Native Americans, but at least they got something … The only time we have a problem with it is when it’s categorically done for African Americans. That’s the only time this country has ever had a problem with doing anything governmentally.”
If Massacre reparations are not passed for survivors in this centennial year — and if policies are not enacted to create a better quality of life in Tulsa — activist Kristi Williams says Tulsa will miss a pivotal moment.“If it doesn’t happen now, it will take some of those people to die off because I believe our younger generation coming up will get it if they don’t get it,” says the 45-year-old descendant of a Massacre victim. “I may not see it (Massacre reparations) in my lifetime.”
Other U.S. cities might be paving the way for Tulsa. Most recently Evanston, Illinois, approved a reparations program for Black residents hurt by the city’s discriminatory housing policies from 1919-69, as well as their descendants. Funded through a 3% tax on recreational marijuana, $25,000 is being paid to each eligible Black household for home repairs or as a down payment on property.
Tulsa City Council Chairwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper represents District 1 that includes Greenwood and north Tulsa. She believes a reparations program should be considered for Tulsa but says getting one passed “sure as hell is not going to be easy.”
“You can go on Facebook and look at the Tulsa World and read the (racist) comments ... That is the sentiment of Tulsa,” Hall-Harper says. “And anytime I bring something up or try to work on any initiative in my community, you’re going to always get those comments.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, that’s just a few people.’ No, it’s more than just a few people who think that way. Because if that were the case, we wouldn’t be facing these issues that we face when it comes to the social determinants of health, education, public safety, food insecurity. You’ve got to question that, because if that were really the case, then we wouldn’t have the life expectancy gaps we have.”
Disparities and division
To Hall-Harper’s point, significant disparities remain between Black and white Tulsans, despite the Bynum administration’s efforts to reduce the gaps through various initiatives.
According to the 2020 equality indicators report from the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity, residents of north Tulsa are about half as likely to earn a living wage as residents of south Tulsa, and the median white household income is nearly twice that of Black household income. In addition, large disparities exist between north Tulsa and other parts of the city regarding the availability of existing jobs in relation to where people reside. There are more than twice as many jobs in midtown than in north Tulsa. On average south Tulsans in some zip codes live nine years longer than north Tulsans, according to the Tulsa Health Department.
“This city is very divided,” says Turner, who is originally from Tuskegee, Alabama. “Ray Charles could see how divided the city is when you look at MLK (Boulevard) not even going all the way through town but stopping right at the bridge, if you look at how well people live, and if you look at the funding; the fact that we still have, in large part, segregated cemeteries. We live in two Tulsas.”
Turner believes the racial division is a consequence of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which he correlates to the biblical account of Cain and Abel. Jealousy drives Cain to kill his brother, Abel, and hide his body — a cover-up that brings God’s curse upon Cain. The situation is not unlike white Tulsa’s jealousy of prosperous Black Wall Street, as well as its cover-up of the Massacre dead, according to Turner.
“God asks, ‘What have you done? The blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground,’” he says, paraphrasing Genesis 4. “There’s an old Hebrew philosopher who speaks about how the shedding of innocent blood curses the land until it is atoned for … Not one person has ever been charged with the crime, not one, and the debt of reparation has never been paid, and so I do spiritually feel the blood of those who were killed here in 1921 is still crying out to God. And just as Cain tried to hide the body of his brother, people here in Tulsa hid bodies in mass graves, where they’re still laying to this day.”
Although prosecuting homicides is not within the City’s purview, Deputy Mayor Amy Brown says there are several challenges to bringing criminal charges against those responsible for the Massacre’s killing.
“To charge someone for murder, you have to have a lot of information we don’t have,” Brown says. “None of the victims at this point are identified for us. We don’t know who the perpetrators were. To prosecute someone for homicide, you have to be able to show that not only did they kill someone, but they had the intent to kill someone at the time.”
The office of Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler directed questions about murder charges related to the Massacre to the Department of Justice/U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office says federal prosecutors must consider jurisdiction, whether there is surviving evidence that can be used to prosecute the crimes and whether those perpetrators are still alive. The perpetrators in this case are deceased and therefore cannot be prosecuted, according to the spokesperson. The U.S. Attorney’s Office cannot legally nor symbolically charge individuals who are deceased.
Brown agrees the burden of proof required to prosecute seems nearly impossible 100 years later.
“There is real tension between how much of this effort we can treat as a forensic homicide investigation, and then how much of it is really, just by the nature of the circumstances, going to have to be treated as an archaeological historical investigation,” she says. “That said, I think there’s still justice in doing this work. We may not be able to put a murderer in prison for killing someone, but we can hopefully tell the story for that victim and bring justice to them through this work in other ways.”
For Turner, that’s not good enough. Every Wednesday afternoon since September 2018, he has stood outside City Hall with his bullhorn, calling for Massacre reparations and legal action against the perpetrators. “I’m here seeking to remove that stench, to bring justice to those who have been slain,” Turner says, “so Tulsa can remove this curse of racism we have been plagued with for far too long.”
The Greenwood of today
For years, downtown development has encroached Deep Greenwood, the intersection of North Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street. Towering over the last remaining historic block of Black Wall Street is the state-of-the-art Greenwood Rising history center, an initiative of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
Supporters say the museum, which is still being completed, will honor the legacy of Black Wall Street. Some of Tulsa’s largest employers, including American Electric Power-Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and QuikTrip, have donated huge sums of money in support. The land for the museum was donated by the Hille Foundation.
But Greenwood Rising also has drawn criticism.
“That’s not what the (Black) community asked for,” Hall-Harper says. “We’ve never been (asked). The power structure, the people in authority, the people with power, influence, resources, I think they take it upon themselves to make these decisions and say, ‘See, this is what we’re doing. Isn’t this a good thing? Isn’t this great? This should get us past or closer to where we should be, or want to be in the city, as it relates to equality and justice.’
“I’ve heard $30 million has been raised for Greenwood Rising. What if they would have invested $30 million in Black entrepreneurship, in acquiring land and developing businesses — putting this land back in the hands of the Black community?”
Williams says Greenwood District projects have propelled downtown tourism while disregarding such needed investments. “This has been my problem with the City of Tulsa and some white people, who may mean well,” she says. “We keep talking about those buzzwords: reconciliation, healing. No one ever asked, ‘What is it that we’re healing from?’ And buildings and murals … that’s not healing.”
For its part, the City has a poor track record of engagement with Black Tulsans, Hall-Harper says. “The mindset has been, ‘We know better than you what you need and what you want, so we’ll make those decisions for you,’” she says. “That’s been how, in a nutshell, the power structure of the City has dealt with the Black community.”
Kian Kamas, chief of economic development for the City of Tulsa, agrees. “I think historically, the reality has been, we just weren’t good at that (engaging the Black community),” Kamas says. “We didn’t do it enough. We didn’t have the relationships in place for people to trust us, even when we did ask for their feedback and their opinions and their input. And then, even when we did get that feedback, we might not have listened to it as well as we should have. … We recognize we have to do a much better job at systematizing those forms of community engagement and input.”
She says her team is working with the HR&A Advisors consulting firm to develop a set of community engagement protocols and policies that will be applied across all areas of the City’s economic and community development work.
One particular project has the potential to put part of Greenwood back into the hands of Black Tulsans: the Kirkpatrick Heights Addition and Greenwood Site, which Kamas says will utilize new policy tools for Tulsa. Fifty-six acres of land flanking the campus of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa was returned to the Tulsa Development Authority in a 2018 settlement with the University Center at Tulsa Authority. Once owned by Black residents of Greenwood, the land will be developed as a result of a year-long master planning process led by a committee of north Tulsa leaders.
“A key component of that project will really be evaluating what the governance and ownership structure look like for redevelopment of that property,” Kamas says.
She says options under consideration include a community land trust or development corporations. The process also will look at what other cities have done to redevelop property in innovative ways that place ownership within a community and ensure all or a portion of revenue generated is reinvested back into a specific community.
Hall-Harper is hopeful strategies like these will be successful in Greenwood and north Tulsa, but time will tell whether the City’s priorities have shifted. “I’m always going to say I’m hopeful, but it hasn’t happened yet,” she says.
‘The tip of the iceberg’
Ten miles south of Oaklawn, near East 91st Street and Harvard Avenue, Kavin Ross steps through the woods into another graveyard. He calls it “another one of Tulsa’s dirty little secrets.”
Numerous historical accounts have pointed to this, a section of the privately owned Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, formerly called Booker T. Washington (Memorial Gardens) Cemetery, as another possible location for graves of the Massacre victims. The site is near the largely Black community of Alsuma, centered near East 51st Street and South Mingo Road, which was annexed by the City of Tulsa in 1966.
Above Ross, birds trill and a woodpecker hunts for a meal. The Villages at Ashton Creek gated community sits about 50 yards from the unmarked graveyard, and residents can be seen through the trees walking dogs. Traffic can be heard from the nearby Creek Turnpike.
All around Ross, graves lay in pieces.
“This is the resting place of somebody,” he says, pointing to one of dozens of small metal markers lacking identification. “We don’t know who they are now ... We don’t know if they were here in ’21 or years after, or even before.”
Ross, who has visited the Rolling Oaks site since 2004, has documented removal and destruction of the graves over the years. He says city leaders have long been aware of the site, but no progress has been made to secure the area, nor to identify the people buried there.
Over the past two years, the City has repeatedly requested permission to scan the area in question for geophysical anomalies using the same ground-
penetrating technology that identified the mass burial at Oaklawn. Ross and other committee members have expressed frustration at the speed of progress, at times calling for a search warrant to be issued. At press time, City officials anticipated scanning to begin at Rolling Oaks this summer.
The physical investigation also has identified a third possible location for mass graves, the Canes, a homeless encampment near Newblock Park.
“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” Ross says of the graves investigation. “And so, what can we do to continue the work years from now? Money is one aspect of that. ... What happens if G.T. is out of office, and then it’s somebody else, and their priorities are different?
“I’m sure those are all conversations that are being had about how to ensure this work is continued from here, and that whoever is in charge, you know, four or five years from now, is not going to say, ‘No, we’ve done enough. And let’s move on without finding (the Massacre victims).’”
Brown acknowledges it’s a valid concern, and one Bynum’s administration has little control over. “One of the concrete things we’re trying to do at each phase is figure out: How are we building capacity among local researchers, community volunteers, local academic institutions and partnerships, so there’s a whole network of people who are invested in this work and have the skills and knowledge and experience to continue it after G.T. Bynum isn’t the mayor anymore,” she says.
“I think one of the real challenges is that we don’t know for sure what the city’s economic situation will be in five to 10 years. We don’t know what the appetite at the state level to partner in this work might be in five to 10 years.
“But we do know there are a lot of Tulsans who are deeply invested in this work, and many of the researchers we’ve engaged are actually the same researchers who were working with the state back in 2001. They’re already showing decades of commitment to this work, and I fully anticipate that will continue on, as well.”
Ross is hopeful that identifying Massacre victims at Oaklawn or other sites will encourage future mayors to continue the search for the City’s missing Greenwood residents. “Hopefully by that time,” he says, “it’s a process you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to.”
*Quote excerpted from 1921 board meeting minutes the Tulsa Regional Chamber publicly released from its archives in May 2019 in an effort to openly address its historical failures related to the Tulsa Race Massacre and renew its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.