BACK TO COVER PAGE
1921 Tulsa Race Riot Probed
By KELLY KURT
TULSA, Okla. (AP) - A commission investigating the destruction of Tulsa's black business district in 1921 has given the go-ahead for archaeologists to dig in a search for mass graves.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission approved a plan Monday to excavate samples of artifacts or remains from a spot in a downtown cemetery where witnesses and tests indicate possible burial sites. The city also must approve any excavation.
``Psychologically there's some finality to finding remains and saying, `Yes, this really happened,''' commission chairman Bob Blackburn said.
The commission is trying to unravel the mystery of one of the nation's worst incidents of racial violence. In January, it must make a recommendation to lawmakers on whether reparations are owed.
The existence of mass graves is just one disputed issue. The panel is still working to assess blame and determine how law enforcement officials played a role in the attack that is now believed to have claimed as many as 300 lives, mostly blacks.
The city acknowledged the riot's anniversary for the first time in 1996. State Rep. Don Ross, whose legislation led to the commission's creation in 1997, said the group had yet to hear why a ``conspiracy of silence'' had prevented full disclosure until now.
``The business community, the political community and the media conspired to keep quiet,'' he said. ``It is significant, I think, that the cover-up is exposed.''
On Monday, survivors of the riot simply listened as historian Scott Ellsworth described how the incident began on May 31, 1921.
The fighting, Ellsworth said, started when a white lynch mob clashed with a group of black World War I veterans who had come to the courthouse offering to protect the mob's intended target - a black man being held for the assault of a white woman. The woman later declined to press charges.
``A struggle ensues, a shot goes off and the race riot is on,'' said Ellsworth, who has written a book on the riot.
More than 60 known survivors were invited to testify Monday but the five who came had videotaped their statements and chose not to speak.
Ellsworth described how as many as 10,000 white men and boys gathered at for an attack on the black community the morning after the riot began. Police officers and the local unit of the National Guard also joined in the burning of 35 blocks of the once-thriving black business district, he said.
Survivor George Monroe nodded as Ellsworth related his story of hiding under a bed as a white rioter set the home on fire. The man stepped on the 5-year-old's fingers and Monroe's sister stifled his cry with her hand.
Ellsworth spoke of whites attacking with machine guns, burning a black church erroneously thought to hold an arsenal and of airplanes that fired down on those who fled.
His testimony stunned 90-year-old Joyce Walker Hill, who heard for the first time the extent of the attack by white mobs that forced her family to flee their home.
``All I knew is that we were in it,'' said the Kansas City, Kan., woman, who was 11 when whites torched her black neighborhood.
John Hope Franklin, head of President Clinton's national advisory board on race, was just 6 when word of the riot arrived at his home in Rentiesville.
``I knew from my mother's countenance that the news was not good,'' Franklin told the commission.
Franklin's father, a lawyer, lost everything except the clothes he was wearing. He later helped defeat a city ordinance that hampered efforts by blacks to rebuild.