The Burning of Black Wall Street: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

100th Anniversary Research Gives Voice to the Dead; Anthropology Professor and Master’s Alum Worked at Site

Aaron Young and Arion MayesAaron Young, anthropology master's alumnus ('19) and bioarchaeologist had an opportunity to assist in efforts in Oklahoma this summer. Read the Q&A to learn more about the project in which he was joined by his graduate advisor and mentor Arion Mayes, professor of anthropology.

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

One hundred years after the race massacre in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, nationally known at that time as “Black Wall Street,” a team of forensic scientists, and archaeologists, supported by community members, and the City of Tulsa began excavation and analysis in the search for unidentified victims of the 1921 Race Massacre.

For four weeks this past summer, Professor Arion Mayes, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, carried out forensic analysis on burials excavated from unmarked graves in Oaklawn Cemetery. She was joined by master’s in anthropology alumnus Aaron Young.

“It is important that we tell their story. Not just in death,” Mayes said. “While our directive was the identification of the victims of the massacre, the discovery of unmarked graves, in a well-designed cemetery, of others who had lived and died in this vibrant neighborhood alongside those who died fighting for it, reminds us that all the evidence we collect is important in the reconstruction of an event for historical documentation and the context surrounding it.” 

Mayes has a personal connection to the research as her parents and grandparents are from Tulsa and she remembers stories of her great uncle recanting standing in the front yard as a child watching plumes of smoke rise from the Greenwood neighborhood.

“If you walk down the main road of downtown Greenwood today, you’ll see the only church that didn’t burn completely —  it is still a centerpiece in the community,” she said. “As you walk along the street there are plaques that tell you what business or home was there or who lived or worked there.” The Greenwood Cultural Center houses historical artifacts, photos, and displays to preserve and promote African American culture and heritage.

“Many efforts have been made not to forget. This research project gives hope that the city is committed to remembering,” Mayes said. Research efforts are led by the City of Tulsa, Mayor Bynum, the University of Oklahoma, and the public oversight committee composed of descendantsand residents of the Greenwood District.

“It was an amazing project. I had the ability to aid in a project that will eventually give a voice to the dead. Perhaps, in some cases returning victims to their descendantsor certainly returning them to their community, which gives an alternate lens to a historical account,” she said.

“As a forensic anthropologist I have had many opportunities to approach social injustice through an anthropological lens, working with Native American communities in the analysis and repatriation of Native American remains (NAGPRA law), from enslaved Africans as a research associate on the New York African Burial Ground, to the current association of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the destruction of the vibrant Greenwood community,” Mayes added. “I feel it is crucial in training the next generation of anthropologists to include students in all areas of these professional relationships for an understanding of our ethical responsibilities to not only communities, but, our discipline. For that I have my own mentor Lesley Rankin-Hill to thank. And, I was proud to be given the chance to offer the same opportunity here.”

Q&A with Aaron Young, M.A. Anthropology (‘19)

What were some of your specific assignments in Tulsa?
My role in this project was to sift/comb through backfill and burial fill from the excavation area to look for and remove any artifacts and small pieces of bone. A sifter with a wire mesh screen was used to separate the artifacts from the soil. We would use different mesh grades, depending on the size of artifacts we would expect to recover.

Soil from right above, around, and beneath the coffin area was of extra importance due to the possibility of recovering small pieces of bone and hardware used to construct the coffin. Artifacts not associated with specific burials were washed and cataloged. If human bone fragments were found, we would re-associate the fragments with that individual. Artifacts like coffin hardware were also re-associated with each individual.

Other duties I performed on the project included assisting the forensic anthropologists (such as SDSU’s Arion Mayes) in the documentation of the recovered individuals. Documentation can consist of creating an inventory of what skeletal elements are present, estimating age and sex, noting any trauma and pathology present, and taking x-rays. 

What was a typical day like onsite?
A typical day would begin with a moment of silence and a brief prayer or discussion led by a representative of the Public Oversight Committee. The committee consists of descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre and prominent leaders in Tulsa’s African American community. After this, excavation would begin, and I would start to sift through the backfill/burial fill. The day would end with a recap by the State Archaeologist of Oklahoma (Kary Stackelbeck) of what we accomplished for the day and plans for the next day. We would then end the day with an additional moment of silence and prayer/discussion led by someone from the Oversight Committee.

How did you become interested in this particular project?
I initially became interested in this project from watching an interview with Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield about her work in the investigation.  I’ve met Dr. Stubblefield at conferences, and she is a colleague of Dr. Arion Mayes, my graduate advisor, who is also a forensic anthropologist on the project. After watching that interview, I reached out to Dr. Mayes to see if there was any way I could assist.

What personally makes you interested in this research?
I wouldn’t really say that this project was about research, but it was about correcting mistakes society made in the past, and that is why I am interested and invested in this project. As a bioarchaeologist, I can help bring peace, closure, and hopefully answers to the descendant community. 

How did your master’s in anthropology prepare you for this project?
My graduate work at SDSU helped me develop the skillset needed during excavation and documentation. Specifically, I was a student in Dr. Mayes’ Human Osteology course and seminar in Bioarchaeology. Both classes are necessary for any student interested in working with human remains. Taking Human Osteology, students become proficient in identifying fragments of bone and identifying human versus nonhuman bone, both of which are extremely beneficial. The seminar course in Bioarchaeology is important because it provides a history of the discipline, the challenges we are faced with, and the ethics of working with human remains and the communities to whom they belong. 

How do you feel about the discoveries? 
The best way to describe how I feel about the discoveries is hopeful. I hope that the work we are doing and what continues to happen will bring closure and answers to those that were hurt by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. If and when we find the answers the community is longing for, I hope we can provide each individual with a proper long-term resting place, free from future disturbance.

How will you apply what you learned to your work now? 
From working on this project, you are reminded that the skeletal remains we uncover from the ground or study for class or work were once a person. It is easy to forget that and treat the remains as an object or tool to answer a question. However, we need to put humanity back into the remains and treat them with the utmost care and respect.

My work in Tulsa relates to my current work as a graduate assistant at the Arizona State Museum. Working on this project reinstalled this mindset and is something that I plan on carrying forward in my graduate career at the University of Arizona and beyond.

Can you tell me what most surprised you about the work and the investigation?
What surprised me the most about this project was the community’s investment and interest in it. A member of the Public Oversight Committee was there every day and stayed the entire time we worked. Being at the excavation site for the entire duration shows you their commitment and how important this work is for the community, even though it was a tragic and painful event. The other surprising element of the work we did was the diverse specialties each person brought to the project. We had experts in forensic anthropology, bioarchaeology,  geomorphology, paleobotany, historians, historical archaeology, faunal analysis, and geophysics.