Nearly a century ago, Tulsa, Okla., was the site of one of the most brutal race massacres in U.S. history. As many as 300 African American residents were slaughtered by white mobs and a section of the city known as Black Wall Street was reduced to ash.
Historians have been trying to determine where most of the victims were buried for decades.
This week, officials began a test excavation to determine if a plot of land on city-owned property is the site of a mass grave. Scientists said last year that they found “anomalies” there using ground-penetrating radar, which could indicate the existence of an unmarked burial ground.
“Our work continues to find the graves of our fellow Tulsans who went missing during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said in a Facebook post on Monday, announcing the start of the excavation at the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery.
“Because the scan is consistent with a mass grave, a team of some of the foremost researchers in the nation have assembled in Tulsa to assess both the presence and the condition of any human remains at the site in question,” he said.
The test excavation is expected to last three to six days. The city is providing a live feed on Facebook where viewers can see the earth being removed.
Tulsa officials said the project was slated to start in March, but was delayed due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Now, the city is requiring individuals inside cemetery, including those monitoring the excavation process and archaeologists, to test negative for COVID-19.
State officials have said that two other areas, Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens and The Canes, will be examined for potential unmarked burial sites in the coming months.
As NPR reported last year, a group of scientists led by State of Oklahoma Archaeological Survey discovered a pit at Oaklawn measuring roughly 30 feet by 25 feet. They said it was large enough to fit up to 100 bodies.
“I’m as confident as I can be in the results that this is a very big candidate for something associated with the massacre,” Scott Hammerstedt, a senior researcher with the OAS, said during a public forum in December.
There was renewed interest in the Tulsa Race Massacre recently, when President Trump chose the city to host a campaign rally last month – his first since the coronavirus forced much of the U.S. economy to shut down.
It was originally scheduled to be held on June 19 – a day also known as Juneteenth that commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States.
Trump changed the date after a torrent of criticism. Some of those critics saw the location and original date of the rally as another affront by the president, amid a torrent of pain and anger over the killing of George Floyd that sparked nationwide protests.
Trump said he eventually changed the date out of respect for the holiday after hearing from his “African American friends and supporters.”
Historians trace the spark of the 1921 Race Massacre to a confrontation between a young man, who was Black, and a white woman in a downtown Tulsa elevator. The man was accused of assaulting her, a claim that stoked tensions at a time of racial unrest.
Not long after, a group of thousands of armed white residents stormed the city’s Greenwood district.
“Members of the white mob had looted pawn shops and sporting goods stores for guns to take with them as they flooded into Greenwood,” historian Hannibal Johnson told NPR in December. “White mobs prevented firefighters from stopping fires and some eyewitnesses say planes dropped bombs and strafed the community with gunfire.”
When the smoke cleared, an estimated 150 to 300 Black residents had been killed.