One of the most emotional subjects related to the Tulsa Race War concerns the enduring suspicion that scores, perhaps hundreds, of African-American corpses were secretly disposed of and never accounted for by whites following the conflagration, in order to lessen the infamy of Greenwood’s destruction. Such an enterprise would suggest a heightened disregard for black human life and an elaborate and organized collaboration to pull off such a scheme and keep it quiet—possibly related to an elaborately planned overarching conspiracy to destroy or greatly diminish Greenwood. It would also validate the much higher than official death count that many people suspected, and perhaps enhance the likelihood of financial “reparations,” or money payments to survivors of the disaster and/or their descendants, for which several black politicians and activists were advocating.
One of the latter, a member of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, championed a reparations package that would have cost 21st-century Oklahoma taxpayers nearly 34 million dollars—over a third of it going to the African American college where that commission member taught. No mention was made of reparations to descendants of Indians who had suffered through the Trails of Tears and other sorrows, non-Tulsa black victims of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, white Mennonite Christians and Socialists persecuted during World War I, any other Oklahomans mistreated by civil authorities and/or the public, nor other Indians ravaged and displaced by warrior tribes such as the Comanches.
Numerous particular theories survived through generations of black “oral history,” being passed down by word of mouth from grandparents and parents to children. One of the prime objects of the commission was to authenticate this oral tradition and reveal once and for all the existence of mass graves, as well as other unreported burials—or non-burials—including those of dead bodies pitched into the Arkansas River bordering west Tulsa.
Commission chairman Bob Blackburn, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), helmed this elaborate effort, which enfolded the efforts of many organizations and spanned years, and anticipated righting a dark and long-hidden conspiracy.
“The urban mythology was so deep there,” Blackburn explained, “(that) they threw bodies in the river, mass burial sites, and different things like that. We used ground penetrating radar. It was brand new technology, very expensive. The guys down at OU, the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, agreed to come help us out. We went to the sites most likely to find a mass gravesite and we never found anything.”
Broadening the hunt, OHS researcher Larry O’Dell investigated newspaper records for all the towns downstream from Tulsa pertaining to bodies floating down the Arkansas for months after the Tulsa tragedy and found nothing.
Also, Blackburn recalled, “We went through all of the gravedigger records at the Tulsa County Courthouse. The county paid gravediggers a dollar a day to bury people. Funeral home records were there, too.”
In the End
All of this leads to the contentious question of how many people did die in the Tulsa Race War. In the end, after years of labor on the part of scholars, archaeologists, activists, politicians, historians, the media, and many other citizens, and scores of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money, the official, much-maligned death count of 36 was increased by two people to 38, as authenticated by world-renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow of Norman during the Tulsa Race Riot Commission investigations. Snow’s previous work included President Kennedy’s assassination, Custer’s Last Stand, Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the OKC Bombing. He spearheaded the commission’s search for uncounted corpses, including mass and other overlooked graves.
Newspapers published by blacks as well as whites offered higher estimates than 36, then and now. So did Red Cross director of the Tulsa relief effort Maurice Willows in 1921. He believed that as many as three hundred people died, the great majority of them African-Americans. The Tulsa World’s June 2, 1921 front page lead headline blazed: DEAD ESTIMATED AT 100; CITY IS QUIET. The same World issue, however, included a major front page story section entitled “Fear Another Uprising,” which trumpeted “the frequent reports and rumors that negroes are preparing for revenge and that they have gathered at Red Bird, a negro settlement, and other negro towns, preparatory to making a concerted attack upon the city of Tulsa to destroy the business section and the public utilities.”
Contemporaneous accounts and opinions of historic events are valuable, but they often feature unauthenticated reports, incomplete information, and events that were still in progress. In the case of the Tulsa Race War death count, every theory positing a number much higher than the official one depends on hundreds of apparently non-existent dead or even missing bodies.
“Clyde Snow had all the evidence,” according to Blackburn. “Based on what he’d seen in Bosnia, Beirut, and elsewhere, looking at the maps, genocide…based on what he’d found, and this is a quote from him, the trend would put the Tulsa death count at somewhere between 36 and 75, and probably toward the lower end of that range.” Blackburn himself agreed with that estimate.
James S. Hirsch recounted in his book Riot and Remembrance that the most ardent Tulsa Race Riot Commission proponents of hidden bodies conspiracies ultimately decided to halt the search for them in case there were none. “The continued search,” wrote Hirsch, “had become risky. Just as finding (a mass grave) would reveal the lies of the riot, not finding one could be seen as confirming the event’s official history, including the body count (of 36).”
New searches in Tulsa cemeteries for possible graves, mass graves, and remnants of the dead continued in the early 2020s. As of 2022, searchers count around 27 previously-unreported graves at excavation sites possibly connected to the mournful events of 1921. They had no evidence as yet tying the graves to those events.