Tulsa will begin test excavations at Oaklawn Cemetery next week, the first step in an effort to recover the remains of victims from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the deadliest incidents of white racial violence against Blacks in U.S. history.
Initial news reports from 1921 said 36 people died in the violence. Today, most historians believe the real number to be around 300.
The city, along with the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, will excavate the cemetery as a part of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre grave investigation. The dig was scheduled to begin April 1, but coronavirus travel restrictions delayed the start to July 13.
The test excavations to uncover initial evidence will be done where victims may have been buried, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Oaklawn Cemetery was chosen as Monday's excavation site based on oral histories and results from ground-penetrating radar probes that discovered an anomaly within the ground.
While the excavation would be the first step in finding the true number of victims, Scott Ellsworth, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Death in a Promised Land, a detailed account of the massacre, believes the dig has further significance.
"Most importantly, we're going to rebury [the victims] with honor," Ellsworth said, speaking to Voice of America's International Edition host, Steve Miller.
Tulsa was put under martial law immediately after the race riot, with family members and loved ones of the deceased held under armed guard at internment camps.
Instead of identifying the victims, the National Guard buried the bodies in unmarked graves, Ellsworth said.
"These are individuals who were all murder victims … who were literally thrown away," the professor said.
Woman's scream triggered riot
The 1921 Tulsa massacre was sparked by an incident between a young Black man, Dick Rowland, and a white woman, Sarah Page. On the morning of May 30, 1921, Rowland was supposedly riding in an elevator with Page when she screamed, and Rowland ran out when the doors opened.
The following day, the Tulsa Tribune published a story of Rowland allegedly trying to rape Page, as well as an editorial declaring a lynching was being organized to take place that night.
Tensions eventually led to 18 hours of violence beginning on the night of May 31 and continuing into the next morning. A white mob burned to the ground Tulsa's Greenwood district, also known as the Black Wall Street, and other African American businesses and institutions.
The violence pushed most of Tulsa's African American population into homelessness. Not one of the white rioters was imprisoned for murder or arson.
After 99 years, the excavation next week will mark the first in-depth government effort to investigate the race riot.
"No other agency or government entity has moved this far into an investigation that will seek truth into what happened in Tulsa in 1921," Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said. "As we resume with the test excavation, we're taking all precautions to do so under the safest environment possible."
Though the dig is not guaranteed to discover the massacre's victims, Ellsworth revealed that there are two other possible sites for the remains.
"Whatever happens next week — and it may take longer than that — this won't be the final word on it," Ellsworth said. "This is going to be the first word."
VOA's International Edition host Steve Miller contributed to this report.