TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Twenty years ago, Bob Brooks and others began a two-year search for mass burial sites connected to Tulsa’s 1921 race massacre that for most of its history has been known as the Tulsa Race Riot.
They didn’t find anything, but they did locate a spot on the south side of Oaklawn Cemetery that Brooks thinks would be a good place to start if the investigation is reopened. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum recently indicated an interest in reopening the search.
“We very clearly have an anomaly of 15 feet square there,” the now-retired state archaeologist told the Tulsa World . “It’s something. We’re not certain what it is.”
The area in question is spread over several plots in Section 19, which is said to have been a potter’s field in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
In late 1999 and early 2000, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, the city of Tulsa and Brooks discussed excavating a 3-foot-by-6-foot section of the area, but the work was never done.
Legal and ethical concerns arose when it was learned records for the city-owned cemetery showed several burials not connected to the riot had occurred in that part of Section 19, including one right in the middle of the anomaly. And, it was learned the city may have dug up part of the cemetery for a storm sewer line in the distant past.
There were also political considerations. The commission’s authorization was about to expire, and continuing its work required the approval of a skeptical Legislature. There were also disagreements within the commission about how high a priority should be given to what amounted to searching for a needle in a haystack - without knowing where the haystack was or if the needle existed.
Thirty-seven deaths from the violence of May 31-June 1, 1921, have been confirmed, but almost everyone who’s studied the massacre believes the true number is higher. How much higher is unknown. Reports of uncounted deaths and hidden mass burials began circulating before the smoke cleared from the rubble of the destroyed black district.
None of the early accounts, though, gave a specific location.
A June 3, 1921, Tulsa World story said 13 black riot victims were buried at Oaklawn “separately and in plain caskets” - a description that suggests they might not have been. Brooks, though, said those graves were located and don’t appear to be a mass burial site.
In 1997, the Race Riot Commission began gathering oral histories and decided the three most likely places were Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery and Rolling Oaks Cemetery, which in 1921 (and for decades after) was known as Booker T. Washington Cemetery.
In the summer of 1998, Brooks and a team of scientists used remote sensing technology to identify potential sites at those three locations.
At Newblock Park, which in 1921 had been the site of a waterworks and city dump, a large anomaly turned out to be an old basement. One at Booker T. Washington Cemetery was eventually identified as a layer of clay.
In the spring of 1999, Brooks and OU geophysicist Alan Witten went back to Oaklawn after a man named Clyde Eddy said he remembered seeing bodies buried there as a child. Using different equipment than the year before, they found two anomalies. One was ruled out because of its high iron content. The other was the spot in Section 19.
The instruments could not tell what, if anything, was under the sod in this particular area, only that readings indicated a large hole had been dug and filled in at some point.
“We have records showing individual graves there,” Brooks said. “The science is not showing that.”
Brooks said the instrument readings from 1999 were lost when Witten died several years ago. In any event, new technology would almost certainly be brought to bear if the area is examined, and Brooks says that technology is “much more powerful and much more sensitive. The software that’s used is much more sophisticated.”
He said he’s completely removed from the current discussions about whether to reopen the search, but seems to think a return to Section 19 would be worthwhile.
“It would be nice to resolve it one way or the other,” he said.
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.