May 31, 2021 is the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a tragic and sobering chapter in Tulsa and U.S. history. While the details were not commonly known until recently, great strides are being made in telling a wholistic history which includes the good, and the ugly, concerning minority communities and underrepresented groups.
In February 2020, a related blog, Perspectives On Black History Month: Investigations Into Tulsa’s Race Massacre Continue, highlighted the ongoing efforts in Tulsa to understand – and heal from – a race riot. As part of our series focusing on underrepresented groups, I’m providing an update to these efforts and events planned to mark the centennial year.
A “Peoples History” of Oklahoma
A conversation with Hannibal Johnson, esquire, chair of the Education Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and local curator of Greenwood Rising, was featured in the recent Oklahoma History Conference. According to Johnson, “the (ongoing) story is the people, not the massacre.” During the interview, he spoke candidly about the tragic event, what led up to it, and how its history came to be suppressed. With a focus on people and their actions – both good and bad – of the Black and White citizens involved, Johnson provided what he termed “a peoples history of Oklahoma” related to the incident. He stated how important transparency and sharing a full and balanced history is, and providing education materials for school curriculums. To this end, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission (Centennial Commission) is dedicated to educating Oklahomans and Americans about the event and its impact on the state and nation. The Centennial Commission remembers victims and survivors through educational and art project initiatives, a new history center, as well as other activities and events.
Part of the race massacre’s history that remains elusive is the location of all the victims, which led to a 2019 initiative using modern tools to identify potential mass grave sites. The next year, teams from the University of Oklahoma’s Oklahoma Archeological Survey scoured several Tulsa locations with ground-penetrating radar. In a historically black area of Oaklawn Cemetery, the archeological team located one unmarked casket with human remains on October 20, 2020, and the next day uncovered several more of an eventual twelve caskets in a mass grave. The discovery correlates with records from 1921 that show at least 18 massacre victims were buried in the area. However, further forensic testing and research is needed to determine whether the remains are definitively related to the race massacre, which will take time. As well, further investigations are needed in other areas of Oaklawn and other Tulsa locations to find all the victims – a daunting task, and also an important step in discovering truth related to this terrible event that will hopefully lead to healing.
Honoring and celebrating the people
The voices and stories of some survivors can be heard through oral history recordings. Survivors (and sometimes their children or other relatives) were interviewed and recorded in the years following, and now these recordings are digitized. For a deeper understanding of the event’s impact, visit the Oklahoma Historical Society Audio Archives and several survivor interviews can be accessed on You Tube.
As the 100-year mark approaches, Greenwood Rising, a world-class history center and museum right at the entrance of the Greenwood District, is being built by the Centennial Commission. The museum, which is expected to open in late spring 2021, will feature interactive and experiential exhibits to convey not only the events of 1921, but will also celebrate the forgotten/unknown history and entrepreneurial spirit of the people who made this area such a success.
As historians, it is vital to understand and contextualize our nation’s history of racial segregation and subjugation. Including the voices of historically marginalized groups is necessary if we want to have a clear and complete view of our past, and is what will ultimately allow us to create something better for our future.