OU faculty members are helping locate the lost mass graves containing victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, helping bring a community closure and justice almost a century later.
Amanda Regnier, director of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, and Scott Hammerstedt, a senior researcher at the survey, are collaborating with the city of Tulsa to help locate the mass graves where the victims of the 1921 massacre were buried.
The massacre took place from May 31 to June 1, 1921, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum website. The massacre occurred after a black man, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white elevator operator. Later, the accusations escalated to rape, although neither of the accusations were ever proven.
Rowland’s charges were later dismissed but reports of the encounter in the news would incite mob violence between black and white residents, according to the site. Thirty-five city blocks of Tulsa’s primarily black Greenwood District was looted and burned by white rioters, and black Tulsans were imprisoned, according to the website. Historians now believe as many as 300 people were killed.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum announced in October 2018 the city would reopen its investigation into the location of the graves. Regnier said that she and Hammerstedt were contacted by the mayor the following day due to their experience in locating sites that have become hard to identify over time.
Hammerstedt said they are using specialized survey equipment including a ground-penetrating radar to scan for areas of earth that show evidence of being unnaturally disturbed or potentially containing human remains.
“There are three areas in the city (being surveyed) — Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park and another one is Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens,” Hammerstedt said. “Those areas were identified by historians who have been studying the race massacre for many years.”
Regnier said one of the goals of the project is to bring light to and properly remember this chapter of Tulsa’s history, as well as to give its victims a small measure of justice.
“The city of Tulsa, for a long time, kind of tried to downplay and hide the fact that that this really terrible incident occurred,” Regnier said. “Now, with the administration of a new mayor, they're very interested in trying to find some form of justice for the victims, and one of the ways that we can do that is to find out where those victims were laid to rest.”
The project is still collecting and processing data from the potential sites, Hammerstedt said, and he expects to provide a report of the project’s findings to the city some time in December.