Unearthing a Massacre

This week, Tulsa reckons with its past.  On Monday, October 19th the pandemic-postponed excavation of a possible mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery began. On Tuesday, the remains of one body were found, and on Wednesday, ten distinct coffins were unearthed by a team of researchers and archeologists. 

Though unconfirmed, these findings are believed to be linked to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. This comes as Tulsa prepares for the centennial year of this infamous event. Long hidden from the collective consciousness of Tulsa by a kind of mass social amnesia, the Race Massacre was only added to the Oklahoma Education Department Curriculum in the fall of this year. 

“How slowly the mills of justice grind if one is black,” wrote James Baldwin in his essay ‘Dark Days.’ And his words ring true in Tulsa, where it’s taken nearly 100 years to find what a history written by white actors has buried. 

Image taken from the @cityoftulsa Instagram
Image take from the @cityoftulsa Instagram account

Now we must ask what Justice really looks like. One could argue it is more than the unearthing of wronged souls, though that must be part of it too.

Justice lies in reparations, as argued by Dreisen Heath in her thorough piece for the Human Rights Watch, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” Heath gives a detailed history of the Massacre, up into the modern day. Included in this history is the formation of the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission (formerly the Tulsa Race Riot Commission) in 1997. The commission, which held no legislative power, made several recommendations, including the direct payment of reparations to survivors and descendants, the creation of scholarships for students affected by the massacre, and the establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district.

“The ‘Tulsa Race Riot Commission’ made its recommendations to the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa nearly 20 years ago,” Heath writes, “but they have yet to be fully implemented.” 

Where thriving Black Wall Street once stood in the Greenwood District, Mayor Bynum now pushes for the building of a BMX Olympic Arena. Heath continues:

“When asked about reparations, Mayor Bynum said he prefers to focus attention on the money that the city is putting into building and development of areas near historic Greenwood[…]North Tulsa and Greenwood community leaders have raised concerns that businesses and political leaders developing the Greenwood area are not doing enough to preserve black culture in the historic area, making it unaffordable for many black Tulsans, and not prioritizing economic opportunities for them.”

In September of this year, a lawsuit was filed by the last two survivors of the massacre. The plaintiffs and their supporters demand concrete reparations. This litigation comes on the tidal wave of protests against police violence and systemic racism in Tulsa and the Nation at large. 

As physical traces of Tulsa’s history are unearthed, Tulsans must not view these graves as evidence that racism and violence are remnants only of a distant past. Rather, we must see the throughline drawn from the fraught history of our city, our state, and our country to the modern day. 

Though Mayor Bynum pushed for the investigation into these mass graves, we must not forget he is the same man who okayed the destruction of the Black Lives Matter sign on October 5th, arguing that he supports the message only “on private property.” The same mayor who has sanctioned an increase in the already outsized Tulsa police budget in the coming year.  

History is alive today. It shows itself in our city’s segregation. In our outstanding funding of the police. In our city’s schools, prisons, food deserts, and transportation systems. In the lack of resources in North Tulsa. 

To dig up the past, one must be ready to truly see what it says about the present. One must be ready to ask if we are prepared to do real justice to the very lives we are exhuming.