Archaeologists have unearthed almost a dozen wooden coffins holding the remains of victims of the Tulsa massacre nearly 100 years ago.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, some 300 Black residents in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were killed by mobs, police and national guardsmen after a Black man was accused of attacking a white woman.
The archaeological dig at the Oaklawn Cemetery is part of an effort to locate the remains of the victims who were quickly buried without funerals, death certificates or official records.
Brenda Alford’s grandparents were survivors of the massacre. On that tragic day, Alford’s grandparents, along with their 2-year-old daughter, fled the violence only to return to find their home and businesses destroyed, she says.
Alford now heads the citizens’ oversight committee for the project to find and identify the victims of the massacre and give their family members the opportunity to hold proper funerals for them.
“For many, many years, various members of the community shared that there were victims at Oaklawn Cemetery and other locations throughout the city, and we just want to delve into that history and to bring that truth to light,” she says. “My reality every day of my life is that if my grandparents and our family members had not survived those terrible days, I would not be talking to you.”
Alford says the dig will continue “as long as it takes,” and she describes the moment she watched researchers find those coffins believed to be the victims.
“I tell you, time stood still for me for a moment, and I became, I was just overcome with emotion, if you will, because I was thinking of those victims that were lost so tragically,” she says. “And I'm thinking of my grandparents who lost friends and neighbors along the way as they were running for their lives from Greenwood Avenue.”
The group plans to finish the excavation to see if there are more coffins in the area. Alford says she is dedicated to finding the victims of the massacre, so their family members can properly mourn and grieve in ways they weren’t able to back then.
“I think about the community that I grew up in that was so loving, so kind, and they gave us their best in spite of what they had endured,” she says. “And I feel like I am standing in their stead in this moment in time, this historic moment in time, and if anything, I hope they know amongst any and everything else that their living was not in vain.”
This segment aired on October 27, 2020.