Tomorrow, in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, Donald Trump will hold his first campaign rally in more than 100 days. The rally has been widely criticized because of concerns that it will spread the coronavirus, and because its original date—June 19—is Juneteenth, a holiday marking the day the last enslaved people in the former Confederacy gained their freedom. After public outcry, the rally was moved by a day to tomorrow.
But the plan also drew criticism for the choice of location. The city of Tulsa was the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when a white mob burned a prosperous black neighborhood to the ground, killing likely hundreds of black residents and leaving thousands of others homeless.
Trump’s rallies have been routinely denounced for encouraging and inciting racial violence. But when thousands gather to hear him speak tomorrow, they will be standing on land already soaked in it. Tulsa emerged amid a flurry of oil and land profits and decades of violence against its black and Native residents. The history is buried underneath the skyline itself.
The BOK Center spans four blocks in downtown Tulsa. If you stand at its western corner and face west, you can see a set of train tracks at the end of the block. If you follow those tracks to the bank of the Arkansas River, a distance of about a half a mile, you come to “the Canes,” a place where historians and forensic archaeologists believe some of the victims of the massacre are buried in a mass grave.
Northeast of the BOK Center is the historic Greenwood Avenue, which leads to the neighborhood where the massacre occurred. Directly north is the famous Brady Theater, where survivors of the massacre were rounded up at gunpoint and held. And to the east is the Oaklawn Cemetery, where more victims are believed to be buried. Draw a circle that passes through these three sites and the Canes, and the BOK Center will lie in the middle.
“This is considered sacred land by the black community,” says Mechelle Brown, the program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, who serves on the Historical Narrative Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation. “It is insulting [for Trump] to come to Tulsa. Especially to an area where there could be a mass-grave site, where black people were marched to internment centers, where black people were running and fleeing for their lives.”
On May 31, 1921, a black teenager was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator downtown. That afternoon, an angry white mob gathered at the courthouse. Greenwood residents came to protect the teen, but a confrontation outside turned deadly. White Tulsans turned their anger toward the neighborhood. “It was late at night that they came in and started burning down and started looting Greenwood, killing people that they saw on site,” says Ricco Wright, the owner of Black Wall Street Gallery and a current candidate for Tulsa mayor. “After destroying the entire community, the white mob was then escorting people who survived to the convention center, which was used as an internment camp.”
Evidence of the massacre, including the bodies of the slain, is believed to have been deliberately suppressed at the time. And for decades, little effort was made to uncover it. The 75th anniversary of the massacre pushed the Oklahoma state legislature to commission a report. The 2001 report included information about possible mass graves, but was inconclusive. As political controversy grew over the report’s recommendation to pay survivors and descendants reparations, the official search was called off.
Shortly after, in 2002, a volunteer in the search named Richard “Dick” Warner learned about photographs a former Tulsa police officer, Robert Patty, had seen of the massacre. In the 1970s, according to Patty, an older sergeant had walked into the station’s break room late one night. He pulled out a box of old photographs that had been confiscated by police in the days after the massacre. The pictures, according to Patty, were gruesome. One showed a group of white men standing around a trench. They were carrying bodies wrapped in sheets and tarpaulins from the beds of trucks, up a small hill, and stacking them in the dirt below. Patty could see the Arkansas River and train tracks in the frame.
The research team that worked on the 2001 report, led by Scott Ellsworth, now a professor at the University of Michigan, had talked to approximately 300 people. A story Ellsworth heard multiple times was about white people unloading bodies from trucks on a street near the Canes. In the 1970s, an elderly white man reported seeing bodies on a sandbar near the site after the massacre. “He counted 68 bodies laid out on it. He then goes the next day again … and they were gone,” Ellsworth told me.
Last summer, another piece of evidence emerged: an expense of $90 of ice on the city’s ledger from the month of the massacre. Discovered by Warner’s daughter, Betsy, that amount would have paid for hundreds of pounds of ice. “The ice plant was right by the Canes,” Ellsworth said. “We thought they might have used that to try to preserve the bodies while they’re trying to figure out what to do with them.”
In 2019, the effort to locate the graves started again after a nearly 20-year hiatus. Evidence pointed to three potential sites in downtown Tulsa and one further south. In October, the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey used ground-penetrating radar to search for anomalies that could indicate the presence of graves at the Canes, nearby Newblock Park, and an area of unmarked graves at Oaklawn Cemetery. They found anomalies at Canes and Oaklawn Cemetery. Preliminary excavations at Oaklawn will begin next month.
“I think the community needs to recognize that this is traumatic for black people,” Wright told me. “It's traumatic just having to go through the process of searching for mass graves.”
The local newspaper reported anywhere from 30 to 176 dead. The president of the NAACP—who had traveled to Tulsa from New York—estimated in the days after the massacre that 150 to 200 black people had died. The 2001 report estimated that up to 300 lost their lives to the violence. In his interview with Warner, Patty said the bodies were buried in secret to keep the death count low. Today, there is still no official count.
The violent events that took place around the site of tomorrow’s rally have a long and layered history. “We can’t talk about the history of Black Wall Street without first talking about the history of Native Americans in Oklahoma when it was all Indian territory,” Wright said.
When people of African descent first came to Oklahoma, the nation that enslaved them was not the United States, but rather a group of five Native American tribes—the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Creeks, and my tribe, the Cherokee Nation. Slavery ended in Indian territory with a series of treaties that guaranteed the people who had been enslaved—now called freedmen—citizenship in the tribes. The first black communities in Oklahoma were established by these tribal citizens. By 1920, “Oklahoma had more all-black townships than any other state,” Brown, of the Greenwood Cultural Center, told me.
The white pioneers who settled Tulsa did so on top of that Indian land. Three reservations meet in downtown Tulsa; the BOK Center lies on the northern edge of one of them—that of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. By the late 1800s, things were changing rapidly. In 1882, the railroad came to town. In 1901—and again in 1905—oil was discovered. Soon, Tulsa was a boomtown. The population in 1900 was 1,390. By 1920, it was more than 70,000.
The white settlers and squatters moving to Oklahoma didn’t have rights under tribal governments. They demanded that a new state be created on top of the land promised to the tribes. And they won. In 1898, Congress started the process of dividing up the communally owned tribal lands through a process called allotment. That same year, a federal court granted the city of Tulsa one square mile for its township. The Creek Nation was to be compensated for the value of the land, but through a rigged system and widespread fraud, it was paid cents on the dollar.
The introduction of private property was supposed to be an economic boom for the tribes, but instead it delivered once self-sufficient communities into poverty. At first, to protect tribal citizens from predation, the individually held land could not be sold. But as white demand for land grew, Congress changed the rules. The first people Congress lifted restrictions on was a group it had already decided to separate from other tribal citizens: the freedmen. Arguably, the crude racial classification system Congress created for tribal citizens at this time harmed them the most. Congress also lifted restrictions on people who had less than half Indian blood—a measure of a person’s Indian pedigree—and allowed white guardians to control the land and money for anyone over half. Thereafter, the feeding frenzy started.
“By hook or by crook, the whites stole the land, murdered Indians, used the court system, particularly the guardianships system, … and got rid of the Creeks,” says J. D. Colbert, a Tulsa resident, citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and Creek descendant. For the tribal citizens who survived statehood and then moved to the Greenwood District, their land and property was looted twice.
Twenty years after allotment in eastern Oklahoma, the majority of Indian lands—through sale, corruption, theft, and even murder—had been transferred to white ownership. “It created a situation where the Natives were vagabonds on the earth that they once ruled,” Colbert told me.
Every Memorial Day, Colbert leaves a bouquet of flowers on the corner of Second Street and Frisco Avenue, across the street from the BOK Center. The stadium was built on top of a cemetery that Colbert believes contained Native graves.
When construction on the BOK Center started in 2005, workers found human remains. This wasn’t new; development in the surrounding blocks had unearthed human bones in the ’40s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s.
Tulsa’s first cemetery operated at the site from 1882 to 1905. Some of Tulsa’s most famous pioneers were buried in the cemetery, and by the time the cemetery closed, Tulsa’s white settlers were likely most of its inhabitants. But a 1970 article in the Tulsa World described the site as “an old Indian burial ground,” and more recently, in 2017, the same paper—taking a more cautious approach—reported that the area “may have served as an American Indian burial ground.” Like most of Tulsa’s history, most of the names we know from the cemetery are white, while the identities of the people who came before are buried.
Tulsa comes from the Creek word Tullahassee, the name of a Creek mother town in the tribe’s homeland in the Southeast—probably in what is today Alabama. When Creeks were forcibly removed by the U.S. federal government, citizens of the Loachapoka tribal town carried embers of their council fire with them along the Trail of Tears. At the end of the trail, on a hill overlooking the Arkansas River, they used the embers to restart their council fire. They rebuilt their community on what is now Cheyenne Avenue, just south of downtown Tulsa. Because Tullahassee was Loachapoka’s mother town, “for a long time Tulsa was known as Tullahassee Loachapoka,” Colbert said.
“There might be a vague awareness among Tulsans generally that this was once a Creek town,” Colbert said. “But to the extent that there is, it is very vague and not very deep.”
The early days of Oklahoma held promise for black people fleeing the racial violence of the South. But the first law the state passed introduced Jim Crow, the racial caste system those migrants had come to escape.
And yet the Greenwood District thrived. It was more economically successful than many surrounding white communities. In part, segregation drove the economy. “The dollar, it is said, would circulate up to 19 times in this community before being spent outside of the Greenwood District,” Brown said.
“It was a self-sufficient community. They supported one another,” Wright said. “That, to me, is the most important part of the history.”
The early days of boomtown Tulsa are usually celebrated through the stories of the pioneers, the outlaws, the roughnecks, and the oilmen. What is rarely told is how that frenzy of white wealth came after extreme theft and violence against black people, Native people, and those who experienced the compound racism of being both. You could learn everything you need to know about the violent creation of the United States in the story of one midwestern city. But sadly, so many seem to know as much about this history as we know about the people who may lie underneath the Tulsa skyline—which is to say very little.
Tomorrow, Trump will rally on land where the sins of America’s past are buried. The president’s critics have had a perennial debate about what exactly he represents. Is Trump a novel assault on American values and democracy, or is he just the most recent manifestation of the racism that has always been here?
If the dead could speak, I think we know what they would say.