Race Massacre: Looking toward the light from Tulsa’s dark past

TULSA, Okla. — In just a few months, it will have been 100 years since the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

We’ve told you the city opened an investigation to try to find bodies that may have been buried but not marked.

Two men buried in Oaklawn cemetery near downtown Tulsa are the only two known marked graves of African-Americans who died nearly a century ago in the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“Where is everybody?” asked Kavin Ross, the chairman of the mass graves investigation.

Eugene Martin says his family told him his relative Bob Perryman was buried at Oaklawn cemetery.

“As long as I can remember, my family always talked about my grandmother’s brother, my maternal grandmother’s brother, who was killed in Tulsa race riot,” Martin said.

“We all heard that after he was killed on Greenwood, his body and others were placed on a flatbed truck and placed in a mass grave in this cemetery... it’s just a nightmare to imagine such a thing happening.”

“We need to honor them in some way, and one way is find out, where are they,” Ross said.

Historian Jimmie White was on the Race Riot Commission that wrote this 2001 report after an investigation into the number of people killed.

“Most people believe at least 300 but I think that’s a low number,” White said.

The report named three potential spots for mass graves, including Oaklawn cemetery. White says 20 years ago there was supposed to be an initial search for bodies at Oaklawn. But at the last minute, the search was canceled. Ross remembers it too.

“It was so depressing. We were so close to finding out the truth,” Ross said.

White says it was political. The city government back then pulled the plug.

“It was the City of Tulsa that stopped it. We were stopped. So we had to move on,” White said.

Two decades later, a reopened investigation by the City of Tulsa led to the first search in the fall of 2019 at the same cemetery using ground-penetrating radar.

So far, researchers discovered at least a dozen bodies in unmarked graves.

“It’s closure, it would be closure to identify these bodies out here in a mass grave,” Martin said.

“Hopefully this will solve that mystery.”

Archaeologists haven’t unearthed those bodies yet. They also plan to search other areas of the cemetery too, like the place Clyde Eddy pointed out in 1999.

Clyde said when he was a boy, he saw large wooden crates here with bodies of African-Americans inside. I recently spoke to his son, Steve Eddy, who says that haunted his dad.

“He carried that with him all his life, and he would tell his children about it and get very emotional about it,” Eddy said.

“Everybody in Tulsa wants to know what’s been hidden underneath Tulsa,” Ross said.

While Tulsans wait for answers, many take steps toward healing.

A church that helped 100 years ago is still helping 100 years later. The red cross report from 1921 says First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa opened its doors to survivors who took refuge from the massacre.

The church recently opened the Tulsa Race Massacre Prayer Room -- a self-guided tour with the history of what happened, photographs, and newspaper clippings about the massacre.

Johnna Townsend says her grandmother was in her 20s when the massacre happened. Johnna wanted to bring her 11-year-old grandson Jaymian to the prayer room with her.

“He needed to see it, he needed to understand it and have the opportunity to ask questions and emotions he wanted to express,” Johnna said.

For Jaymian, it was so much to take in, it was difficult for him to find the words to describe what he had seen and learned.

“I’m confused... like, what’s that word -- shocked,” Jaymian said.

“I cried practically through the entire tour, the tears were because I was just as guilty as not digging deeper and educating myself. The healing process is through him,” Johnna said, referring to Jaymian.

This room’s meant to be more than educating about the massacre but to pray against racism.

“It’s been 100 years since this occurred. Through the 100 years, racism is there,” Johnna said.

Jaymian says he’s felt the sting of racism, even just a few days before going through the prayer room when a white boy he was playing video games with online called him a name.

“He called me the n-word. That just made me feel some type of way,” Jaymian said, tears filling his eyes.

“My grandmother used to tell me it was our responsibility as Christians that people are taught the right things and to embrace individuals, and my prayer is we do just that,” Johnna said.

“We’re all human, we need to treat each other like we’re all the same race... there should be no barrier from black people to white people because of skin color,” Jaymian said.

Johnna says the prayer room is proof of positive change.

“The population in the church is more white than African-Americans,” she says.

“This took courage to take this step to create this room to educate to comfort and allow Jaymian and I to be a part of it. To me, this is history. And what I mean is that as Christians, we’re doing exactly what my grandmother said. We’re pulling together to make a difference... keep it going. Keep it going.”