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Search for 1921 Tulsa race massacre victims resumes after decades of "cover-up"

Trump holds rally in Tulsa 99 years after race massacre
Trump holds rally in Tulsa 99 years after race massacre 06:43

A team of researchers and historians have resumed test excavations of potential unmarked mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. A backhoe operator on Monday began slowly moving dirt at Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery, where ground-penetrating radar earlier this year determined there was an anomaly consistent with mass graves.

Researchers plan to open a 6-by-3-meter excavation area using the backhoe to clear the first layer of soil, followed by shovels, trowels and even more delicate tools if remains are uncovered, said Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck.

"It can become a tedious process, but it's important that we do this carefully, cautiously and take copious notes along the way," Stackelbeck said.

On May 31 and June 1 in 1921, white residents and civil society leaders looted and burned Tulsa's Black Greenwood district, known as Black Wall Street, to the ground, and used planes to drop projectiles on it.

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In this 1921 image provided by the Library of Congress, smoke billows over Tulsa, Oklahoma, where hundreds of people in a prosperous black business district were killed. Alvin C. Krupnick Co. / AP

The attackers killed up to 300 black Tulsans, and forced survivors for a time to live in internment camps overseen by National Guard members.

Residents today are still trying to rebuild their grandparents' prosperity.

"You're successful, you have homes, you have your businesses and all of a sudden you don't. It's devastating," Tulsa resident Brenda Nails Alford told CBS News' Omar Villafranca. 

Alford's grandparents survived the massacre. They, like many other residents of the wealthy, black Greenwood neighborhood, owned multiple thriving businesses when it was taken from them by a white mob. 

"We lost our economic base. We lost the opportunity to have generational wealth," Alford said. 

In the years that followed the violence, Tulsa city and business leaders engaged in a "concerted cover-up" to hide the truth about the massacre, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said.

"You had generations of people who grew up in this community ... and never heard about it," Bynum said. "I feel a tremendous responsibility as mayor to try and find these folks. That's a basic thing that a city government should do for people, and Tulsa hasn't."

City officials predict that the test excavation will take three to six days, with work beginning at 7 a.m. each day.

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