What Lies Beneath

by Kevin O'Connor

In 1997, when Clyde Snow agreed to investigate claims from the Tulsa Race Riot, the forensic anthropologist was at the top of his profession. Over the preceding decades, the 70-year old Snow and his team of researchers had uncovered evidence of war crimes in El Salvador, Croatia, Iraq and Argentina. When he wasn’t investigating mass graves for evidence or testifying against despots, he would consult on major historical investigations: he analyzed remains from the massacre at Little Big Horn and assessed autopsy photos taken after the Kennedy Assassination.

Snow was nominally based in Norman, but it wasn’t proximity that convinced him to take on the Tulsa project. According to author James Hirsch and an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Snow found the case in Tulsa just as compelling as those he had encountered elsewhere.

In fact, Snow saw a strong parallel between the Tulsa riot and the episodes of state-sponsored violence he had investigated abroad. Like many historians, he believed that the 1921 riot was not really much of a “riot” at all, but rather an act of ethnic cleansing facilitated by the Oklahoma National Guard. He was used to working in situations where the historical record was unclear, and the Tulsa Race Riot was no exception. It was obvious that the riot decimated Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, which had been one of the most prosperous black communities in the nation, but almost every other aspect of the prevailing riot narrative had been disputed by one group or another.

The one recruiting Snow was the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, an 11-member fact-finding committee created by the state legislature in 1997, a full 76 years after the riot. The Commission was tasked with establishing a historical narrative of the riot, identifying survivors, and making a recommendation on the question of reparations. On the whole, its membership was significantly more progressive (and Tulsa-focused) than the Oklahoma legislature, but the members were certainly not in ideological lockstep. Although the commissioners realized their conclusions would not be legally binding, they were acutely aware of the attention their final report would receive.

While Snow might have been the most colorful expert to come on board, the commission’s overall research effort was managed by historian Scott Ellsworth, who had written a well-regarded book on the riot some years before (Death in the Promised Land, University of Louisiana Press, 1992). To locate remains for Snow to analyze, Ellsworth recruited Bob Brooks, director of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey and a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

The commission had good reason to investigate the possibility of mass graves. Among both scholars and black Tulsans, there was a general consensus that the number of confirmed casualties was too low to be accurate (although opinions varied as to how inaccurate it was). It seemed the remains of those unconfirmed victims had to be somewhere and accounts of mass graves have been circulating in Tulsa ever since. If the researchers could find evidence to disprove the official casualty numbers, it would be a substantial victory. Moreover, it could possibly give them the authority to call other elements of the official narrative into question, if need be.

There were no mentions of mass interment in the Tulsa newspapers, but two days after the Riot, the Topeka Capitol-Journal reported that “thirteen bodies of Negroes” had been buried “in plain wooden boxes” at Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery that day. The report described the burial as being “without ceremony” because it might stir emotions “up if the burial were attended by any ostentation.”

After interviews and archival research, the researchers identified three sites as having “the greatest potential for mass graves.” In addition to Oaklawn Cemetery, which had been Tulsa’s official burial ground since 1905, the researchers focused on Newblock Park and Booker T. Washington Cemetery (located in what is now south Tulsa, but was once the all-black community of Rentie).

For the initial round of testing, Brooks, the archaeologist, examined each of the three sites using ground-penetrating radar. According to the commission’s final report, none of the sites provided conclusive evidence of mass graves but each displayed certain anomalies. In particular, those at Newblock Park and Booker T. Washington seemed to warrant further study. After securing permission to do so, Brooks and the team used a hydraulic machine to drive three rods into the ground at each site. The researchers had hoped to find bone fragments on the rods once they had been withdrawn from the ground, but they were not so lucky. Winter had arrived and several months would pass before further exploration would take place.

However, in the spring of 1999, fortunes seemed to turn. The researchers got a call from a white Tulsan named Clyde Eddy, who was 10 years old at the time of the riot. Eddy told them that, shortly after the riot, he and his friend saw six or eight white men “digging a trench’” in the white section of Potter’s Field at Oaklawn. At that time, Potter’s Field was reserved for the indigent deceased. Next to the trench, Eddy said, were several open wooden crates that clearly contained the remains of black riot victims. He did not actually see the burial—one of the men saw the boys and yelled at them to leave—but it was clear to him what was about to happen.

Eddy’s story captivated the researchers, who had been looking for eyewitness accounts of mass interment. Although Eddy was advanced in age, his story was remarkably lucid and the easily confirmable details he mentioned checked out. There was no obvious reason to doubt his credibility, either: he was an unassuming businessman who frequently volunteered at Holy Family Cathedral. As a 16-year-old Eagle Scout, he had helped start Tulsa’s first black Boy Scout Troop.

The researchers returned to Oaklawn with ground-penetrating radar to test the area Eddy described. There they found, in Brooks’ words, an anomaly that “bears all the characteristics of a dug pit or trench with vertical walls and an undefined object within the approximate center of the feature.” In their final report, Brooks and a fellow archaeologist concluded that the combination of test results and Eddy’s recollection presented a compelling case for assuming the presence of a mass grave at Oaklawn.

The next step, which Brooks recommended, was excavation.

This news captured the attention of national newspapers and popular television programs. An agreement was eventually reached that would allow Brooks and his colleagues to excavate a 15-square-foot patch at Oaklawn. However, shortly before digging was to begin, Assistant City Attorney Paul Prather discovered documentation that showed a man named Ed Baker was buried where the excavation was planned. This unexpected development introduced the potential for new legal hurdles: It was quite possible that Brooks would have to find Baker’s relatives and get their permission in order to excavate. Brooks determined, however, that it would be possible to excavate without digging up Baker’s remains, if those remains even existed where the records said they did.

After brief negotiations, Brooks was given limited permission to dig. However, by that time, the commission no longer had the money to pay for an excavation and its authorization from the state legislature was about to expire.

Also, as time passed, the political will for an Oaklawn excavation had begun to fade. To members of the commission, it had become clear that the discovery of a mass grave would overshadow their other work. Worse yet, the failure to produce a mass grave might hurt the commission’s credibility on other riot-related topics. To many conservatives, including the writers of The Oklahoman editorial page, excavating what might be an existing gravesite is borderline criminal. Some with family ties to riot victims, like former Tulsan Melvin Williams, thought the whole process would just stir up more trouble. Ultimately, the decision was made to cancel the digging.

This decision did not sit well with Clyde Snow. In an interview with James Hirsch, he sarcastically suggested that “perhaps the commission could pass a resolution on what is the politically correct number of bodies to be found in a riot.” Still, despite his frustration with the politics of the process, Snow was able to make a substantial contribution to the commission’s final report by analyzing the victims’ death certificates and revising the official casualty estimates. Combing through state archives and the records of local funeral parlors, Snow found evidence that at least some of the black riot victims were buried at Oaklawn. However, the records he examined were far from comprehensive and without the benefit of archaeological exploration, it would still be impossible to accurately estimate how many black riot victims were ultimately buried there.

Brooks was also disappointed with the outcome, but he was more sympathetic to the commissioners’ concerns. In his contribution to the final report, Brooks relates the findings of his research very carefully, frequently noting the unanswered questions. Despite his empirical approach and technical tone, it is hard to read this final analysis and not come away with a sense of his disappointment.

In the decade since the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was disbanded, there have been no further attempts to investigate the suspected mass graves. But should there be? The city is currently facing racially-charged questions about budget cuts, school closings and police corruption. In this political environment, would raising this issue be productive? Or are Tulsans obligated to try to rectify what we can as soon as we can?

These are hard questions, but, at least for now, it seems the city has arrived at a quiet consensus.

“I don’t know what [further excavation] would do,” said former State Representative Don Ross, the Tulsa Democrat who authored the legislation creating the Race Riot Commission. “I don’t have any doubt that blacks are buried at Oaklawn,” he said, referring to Snow’s final analysis. Ross thinks a dose of realism is necessary when confronting this issue. In the best case, excavating the graves would provide support for what most historians have already acknowledged. Although he thinks providing proper burials is a noble cause, he questions its feasibility and points out none of the previously recognized riot victims received a proper burial either. Ross believes that time and money would be better spent on putting up a memorial—or even just tombstones—in Oaklawn to commemorate the black victims laid to rest there in unmarked graves. After all, he reasons, “what happened is pretty clear.” Even Clyde Snow would likely concede that this, at least in a manner of speaking, is true.