Nearly a century later, Tulsa is digging for evidence of mass graves in infamous race massacre

Mayor G.T. Bynum on 1921 slaughter of Black residents: "It should not have taken 99 years for us to be doing this investigation."

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By David K. Li

Archeologists and hardhats operating backhoes descended on an Oklahoma cemetery this week, hoping to find victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the most disturbing — and largely untold — moments of U.S. history.

Tuesday was this second day of an extraordinary dig at Oaklawn Cemetery, the final resting place for some of the massacre victims given a proper burial, and perhaps the site of many more in mass graves with no marker.

Late last year, geophysical scanning flagged an “underground anomaly," Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said, which could be mass graves from the slaughter.

"It should not have taken 99 years for us to be doing this investigation," Bynum told reporters on Monday. "But this generations of Tulsans is committed to doing what’s right by our neighbors and following the truth wherever it leads us."

Brenda Alford, whose grandparents survived the massacre, said Monday she was "honored and humbled" to be standing feet way from where workers were seeking to unearth history.

"I know they could have never imagined this day in time when we would be speaking about the race massacre, let alone looking for the remains of those who were lost so tragically during those horrible days," Alford said of her grandparents and their neighbors.

"I am honored and humbled to be here, in this day in time, to witness this time in history to stand in their stead as we try to go about remembering them."

White mobs burned and looted the middle-class Black enclave of Greenwood on May 31 and June 1, 1921, reducing 35 city blocks to charred rubble and killing about 300 Black residents of the neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, according to the Tulsa Historical Society.

The massacre has largely been a footnote in America's troublesome history of race relations. But the Tulsa massacre re-entered public consciousness through two unlikely sources in recent months: an HBO superhero drama "Watchmen," and President Donald Trump, who scheduled a rally in Tulsa this past Juneteenth.

"Watchmen" recreated the massacre in its pilot, and Trump was so roundly criticized for scheduling a campaign rally in Tulsa on June 19 that he rescheduled it for the following day.

Bynum thanked workers and researchers working on the site, in the face of the raging coronavirus pandemic that might have been made worse in Oklahoma by the Trump rally.

"I’m very grateful for the commitment of this team of researchers and their commitment to the project," Bynum said. "They are going through rigorous safety protocols just to be here in Tulsa to do this work, let alone everything they're going through to undertake this project with the greatest care."

Project managers plan to dig for three to six days.