On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, walked into an elevator in downtown Tulsa, Okla. What happened next is unclear, but it sparked the Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, with a death toll estimated in the hundreds.
A century later, researchers are still trying to find the bodies of the victims. A new excavation has brought renewed hope that these individuals could one day be found and identified.
By some accounts, Rowland may have tripped and bumped the arm of a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. Others said he stepped on her foot. Some recalled hearing her scream. Others wondered if the two had been sweet on each other and had a sort of lovers’ quarrel. Whatever happened, it was a dangerous time for a young Black man to be caught in a precarious situation with a young white woman.
Tulsa’s population had skyrocketed to over 100,000 people. Most of the city’s African American residents, about 11,000, lived in a section called Greenwood. The neighborhood’s concentration of thriving entrepreneurs earned it the nickname “Black Wall Street” from Booker T. Washington in the early 1910s.
Greenwood became an oasis from racial prejudice and violence, says Alicia Odewale, a native Tulsan and archaeologist at the University of Tulsa. “You could buy land, create businesses and raise families.”
But amid its prosperity, Tulsa was extremely segregated: Oklahoma passed a Jim Crow law immediately after it became a state in 1907, the Ku Klux Klan had a hand in local politics, and lynching was common. Tulsa reflected the racial tensions and violence across the United States after World War I. “There’s sort of a national pandemic of racial terror that’s happening, and Tulsa is unfortunately one city among a hundred,” Odewale says.
The day after the elevator incident, Rowland was arrested on a dubious charge of assault. Rumors circulated that he might be lynched. That night, white mobs invaded Greenwood, setting fires, destroying property, looting shops and murdering Black residents. Instead of protecting the neighborhood, law enforcement handed out weapons and deputized white attackers. Machine gun fire echoed through Greenwood’s streets, and private planes dropped explosives and fired on those who fled.
For 24 hours, Tulsa was a war zone.
By the evening of June 1, 35 square blocks smoldered, thousands of homes and businesses lay in ruin and a still unknown number of people were dead in the streets. A Red Cross report from 1921 suggests that about 800 people were wounded and 300 people died in the massacre, though the toll recorded by Oklahoma’s vital statistics bureau was just 36: 26 Black people and 10 white.
A long history of racism, denial, deflection and cover up of the massacre has left deep wounds in the city’s Black communities. A century later, Tulsans still have questions: How many people died? Who were they? And where are they buried?
Answers to some of those questions now seem within reach thanks to an investigation that in October 2020 unearthed a mass grave believed to hold massacre victims. The finding brings some of those who lost their lives one step closer to being laid to rest properly. Future steps could involve DNA analysis to put names to the remains and possibly to reunite the dead with their families. But that prospect also raises concerns about privacy. Survivors and descendants have also renewed their quest for reparations from the city and state.
Since 2018, when Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum launched the investigation, Greenwood descendants and community leaders have worked side by side with a multidisciplinary team of scientists and guided the process at each step. “Not only is the whole world watching, our children are watching,” says Kavin Ross, a local historian and descendant of massacre survivors. “Whatever we do, whatever we come up with, they’ll see how we are playing a role in history.”
In June, the team begins the careful process of exhuming remains from the mass grave and analyzing bones and artifacts for clues about the identity of the individuals and how they died.