Published 03/26/2020 | Reading Time 6 min 15 sec
By J. Kavin Ross, Senior Writer
TULSA, Okla. — The owner of Rolling Oaks has finally signed the highly anticipated agreement for the forgotten, unkempt and desecrated black cemetery, formally known as Booker T. Washington Memorial Gardens. The issue of scanning between the City’s Mass Graves Investigation Oversight Committee, and the Rolling Oak’s owners had been the center of controversy since the summer of 2019 when black city leaders and Tulsa officials first requested permission to scan and possibly excavate the site.
For months the graveyard’s landowners seemingly appeared hesitant to grant the Committee and archaeologist legal permission to conduct ground-penetrating radar-scans in the heavily wooded area just south of 91st, between Harvard and Yale.
The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 reported that the formerly known as Booker T. Washington Memorial Gardens, now known as Rolling Oaks is among one of three suspected mass graves sites.
Last summer, physical investigations began in the suspected areas of Oak Lawn Cemetery, located southeast of downtown at the corner of 11th (Route 66) and Peoria. Newblock Park was another location; scans were taken, just west of downtown. A homeless encampment just southwest near the Arkansas River, known as the Canes, was also scanned.
Oak Lawn, however, yielded the most promising results — near the southwest quadrant of the cemetery. There are no records from the City-owned cemetery to indicate that graves are present. However, according to the archaeologists’ report, a large 25’x30′ human dug trench is present at Oak Lawn.
For decades, Oak Lawn’s groundskeepers passed down Tulsa’s little-known secret: One of the resting places of Greenwood’s massacred were buried in an unmarked area along a single row of Grey Myrtles trees near an area east of the Inner Dispersal Loop.
There are, however, no records from the City-owned cemetery to indicate that graves are present. Researchers from the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey informed the Committee that the best way to proceed was to excavate a small area to determine if it revealed the remains of massacre victims.
Researchers also cautioned the Committee and the public that any search for mass graves might, in addition, be of Tulsans who died during the 1918 global flu epidemic, which killed 50 million people.
A sample 8 x 10 foot area was, therefore, planned for a careful excavation for the middle of the identified trench. Unfortunately, out of caution, the City of Tulsa stated that the Tulsa Mass Graves Investigation’s sample excavation at Oak Lawn Cemetery scheduled for the beginning of April has been postponed.
Members of the Oversight Committee remain hopeful that the inevitable excavation will reveal the resting place for the black Tulsans murdered by the white mob during the massacre — Greenwood District victims who were hastily buried unceremoniously in 1921.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum stated, “You just can’t go in with shovels and start digging away. You must be very careful and methodical every step of the way. So it may take a while.”
The City stated that more information about the Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens and the rescheduled excavation work would be forthcoming when the current pandemic threat has passed.
1921 Greenwood Massacre Background
During the hot summer of 1921, a white mob of Tulsans invaded the African-American community of Greenwood. Nearly forty city square blocks of homes and businesses were reduced to ashes and rubble. Witnesses saw their beloved Greenwood community set ablaze. Thousands of blacks fled the City, yet many were captured. With their hands in the air, black Tulsans were imprisoned in internment camps around the City. The National Guard was called and martial law was enacted.
Fearing infectious diseases, black deceased bodies were gathered for quick disposal — some dumped into the Arkansas River, most spilled into mass graves around the City. Funerals for black Tulsans were banned, while white funerals proceeded. Earlier reports of the dead were in the hundreds, but Tulsa’s official record purports 36 dead, 26 blacks and 10 whites.
As the dark rolling smoke dissipated, days after the massacre, about 6,000 Greenwood residents were released from the so-called camps, only to return to a destroyed and charred community.
Pogrom survivors stated that their family members were missing and never seen again. The late Otis Clark, who at the age of 19 survived, spoke about his stepfather, Tom Bryant, who owned a restaurant in Greenwood, was never seen again.
In the aftermath, as Greenwood residents sifted through what was left of their residences and places of employment, a conspiracy of silence blanketed the City. Whites refused to talk about the massacre out of white guilt. Blacks did not speak about it out of fear that those who perpetrated the human disaster were still around and threatened the possibility of another assault if anyone should utter about what happened to those ill-fated days from May 31 to June 1, 1921.
J. Kavin Ross is a contributing writer for the Black Wall Street Times and the Founder and Editor of the Greenwood Tribune. James Kavin Ross is a connoisseur of all things Black Wall Street of America. Since his return from Houston, Texas, now over two decades, Ross hit the ground running in the quest of researching the hidden and untapped history of Tulsans of the Greenwood community. Inspired by the works of Dr. John Hope Franklin, a native Tulsan and world-renowned author and historian, Ross was lead on the path in search of the history of Black Wall Street of America. Researching the history and culture of his hometown is just one of his many passions.