Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre after 100 years

TULSA, Okla. (KFOR) — The Tulsa Race Massacre took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921. It started over a rumored encounter between teenagers Dick Rowland—an African American shoe shiner—and Sara Page—a white elevator operator—in the Drexel Building elevator in downtown Tulsa.

Page claimed that she was assaulted, though she later recanted. A newspaper embellished the story of the alleged crime. There was talk that Rowland would be lynched, so armed African American men came to the jail to protect him.

A larger group of armed white men met them there. Then, gunfire rang out. A white mob then set Greenwood on fire.

All 35 city blocks of the community burned, including more than 1,200 homes, 600 businesses and a number of churches on Black Wall Street. It has been estimated that between 100 to 300 people were killed, with many others wounded.

Descendants of survivors discovering their lineage

Although it may be 100 years later, many are just now beginning to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and just now learning about their direct tie to the devastating event.

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Kavin Ross

Growing up, Kavin Ross and Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield did not know much about the massacre. No one did, really. After the 1921 event, many people kept quiet about the atrocities they saw and experienced. But through a twist of fate, many decades later, the two would enter each other’s lives for none other than the massacre.

Today, Ross is the chairman of the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee. His pride and joys are the E. W. Woods Memorial, which he had a part in, as well as Dr. John Hope Franklin Boulevard, also courtesy of Ross.

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Kavin Ross at the E.W. Woods Memorial.

Throughout his adult life, learning about and educating others on the Tulsa Race Massacre has been a top priority, but it wasn’t until recently that he discovered his direct tie. “I only found out about being a descendant, and friends of the family just recently made me… About the last five years,” said Ross. “My great-grandfather, Isaac Evitt, had a Zulu lounge.”

The Zulu lounge used to sit where the I-244 Freeway crosses Greenwood in Tulsa. It was lost in the massacre in 1921. “He was not able to rebuild,” said Ross. “It was a lot of problems in the aftermath of the riot because the city did not want the black folk to rebuild on these grounds.”

One disaster illuminates another

Another tragic day in Oklahoma’s history, the Oklahoma City bombing, helped spark the investigation into the Tulsa Race Massacre. The 1995 tragedy brought in news crews from across the country and ended up leading them to another story that needed to be told: the Tulsa Race Massacre.

That’s according to Dr. Scott Ellsworth, historian and author of “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.”

“The Oklahoma City bombing, of all things, played a huge role in getting the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre out.”

Scott Ellsworth

The bombing that cost 168 people their lives and injured hundreds of others shook Oklahoma to its core. Network news crews set up shop in Oklahoma City for an entire week of live coverage.

During that time, a reporter stated that the bombing was the worst disaster in Oklahoma history, but was corrected by then Oklahoma state representative, Don Ross. “My father corrected him and said, ‘No. The worst one is just an hour and a half away in Tulsa, Oklahoma,'” said Kavin Ross, son of Don Ross.

Don Ross then gave the reporter a copy of “Death in a Promised Land,” which provided a comprehensive history of the massacre. “Ten days later, the ‘Today Show’ called and said on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, in 1996, they will do a story,” said Dr. Ellsworth.

It was the first big breakthrough in getting the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre out. That press acted as a catalyst for Oklahoma’s investigation into the event.

“Don took all of that press coverage to the governor and got the governor to help create the Tulsa Race Riot Commission,” said Ellsworth. “That was the next step in getting the story out.”

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Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield

In the 1990s, Dr. Stubblefield was invited to be a scientific consultant on the Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report. She was not from Tulsa, but had relatives that lived there. She never could have known the experience would change her life and open her eyes to her ancestry.

“I mentioned it to my parents and said, ‘Hey, doing this,’ and they said, ‘Yeah. Yeah, your Aunt Anna lost her house.’ And my question was, ‘Who’s Aunt Anna?'” said Dr. Stubblefield.

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E.W. Woods Memorial

Aunt Anna was the wife of Ellis Walker Woods, or E. W. Woods. “So basically, yeah, it was a surprise, but it was a surprise that lead to more research… and [I’m a] scientist, so I’d normally go that route anyway,” said Stubblefield.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way, and the commission stopped its work. But fast forward a couple decades, and the investigation has been reopened. City of Tulsa leaders reached back out to the original crew, and others, to help finish what they started, eventually making their way to Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery in 2020, where a mass burial site is believed to be.

The crew is read to finish what they started. On Tuesday, remains of what is believed to be race massacre victims will be exhumed from a mass burial site at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa.

“I’ve seen cranial elements from someone that is most likely male in association with some of the plain casket area,” said Dr. Stubblefield. “And that was just a little bit of evidence, because we didn’t exhume the individual, we just, we were on our way towards excavating the whole trench. So it’s looking highly likely.”

“We’re at a powerful moment right now in our state, especially when all eyes are upon us as we commemorate 100 years of Greenwood, and so people get a sense from all over the world what happened here and what lessons that are here for them to take back and learn and practice on their own communities,” said Ross. “I think we’re at the right place and right mindset to pull that off.”

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