ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We have a new clue in a nearly century-old unsolved mystery. In 1921, a white mob burned down Tulsa, Okla., African American section after a black teen apparently stepped on the foot of a white teen in an elevator. More than a thousand homes, churches and businesses were destroyed, but no one has been able to say how many people were killed or where they were buried. A new discovery could change that, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports from Tulsa.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: On the northern bank of the Arkansas River, where the old Santa Fe railroad bridge crosses the water, a homeless campsite squats along the sandy riverbank.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: See that railroad trestle right there? There've been stories over the years that bodies were dropped off of it into the Arkansas River. We don't think that happened. We think that they dropped them onto a sandbar that we know was there.
GOODWYN: On the riverbank area known as The Canes, Scott Ellsworth stands on what may be sacred ground - or maybe not. Ellsworth is the author of "Death In A Promised Land," perhaps the definitive account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Ellsworth says nobody knows how many died. Estimates run as high as 300. Afterward, the white authorities cordoned off the town and confined the surviving black residents at gunpoint. They were hiding a horrific sight - African American mothers, fathers, children, grandparents lying in the streets, some draped over wooden fences that fronted the ashes of what had been their homes and businesses. Ellsworth believes some of the dead were loaded onto rail cars and dropped onto a large sandbar in the Arkansas riverbed.
ELLSWORTH: The authorities didn't know how to get rid of these bodies. They were laid out there for a couple days. It's summertime in Tulsa. We think what happened is that they brought in a steam shovel and dug two trenches here and then brought the bodies up from the sandbar and buried them here and covered them up and didn't tell anyone about it.
GOODWYN: For generations, white Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma repressed this history. Forget about putting it in schoolbooks. Just bringing up the subject of the massacre could bring threats. Tulsa city Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper grew up here. She says she inherited the fight for a memorial and to find the gravesites from the previous generation of Tulsa's black politicians.
VANESSA HALL-HARPER: This is not the first time that this issue has come up. When the first commission was initiated approximately 20 years ago, there was conversation, there was talk about doing something about these mass graves. But for whatever reason, I believe the powers that be decided, no, we don't want to do this now. And it just dissipated, just stopped.
GOODWYN: But over the last few months, an effort to find where the dead are buried has gathered new and significant momentum. Using ground penetrating radar and other methods, researchers spent weeks searching several sites. They've identified at least two which show underground anomalies consistent with mass graves. The next step is to finish the scanning and then excavation. Twenty-three years ago, I traveled to Tulsa to report on the efforts of its black community to memorialize the massacre. In 1996, the last of the survivors were still alive. George Monroe was playing with his friend next door when he first smelled the smoke and saw the white mob come over the horizon.
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GEORGE MONROE: I never will forget some things that I saw, even though I was 5 years old.
GOODWYN: Monroe's mother hid him and his sisters under the big bed.
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MONROE: The guys with the torches did come into the house. And after they came in and set the curtains on fire, they were leaving, and one stepped on my finger out on the edge of the bed. And I was just about to holler and scream when my older sister that was next to me put her hand over my mouth. Now, I remember this as if it was yesterday.
GOODWYN: George Monroe and his family survived the massacre. He died in 2001. But in Tulsa, Okla., the struggle to acknowledge what happened on June 1, 1921 is still very much alive.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.