"At this point, I have to be very honest and say we can't say these two locations represent victims of the race riot," state archaeologist Bob Brooks told the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. Brooks said only excavation could determine that and "of course, since we're working in a cemetery, this is a very sensitive matter."
Nearly 80 years after white mobs torched Tulsa's black business district, witnesses and survivors are finally getting the chance to share their stories with a special panel.
The 11-member group, which includes a survivor, historians, lawmakers and community members, has been investigating the riot for two years. The commission is trying to better determine what happened May 31, 1921, when white mobs torched Tulsa's black business district, and if reparations should be made.
Survivors were to appear before the panel later in the day to share their memories. John Hope Franklin, the son of a riot survivor and head of President Clinton's national advisory board on race, also was scheduled to speak.
The official death count of about three dozen has long been disputed. Historian Scott Ellsworth, a commission aide who has written a book on the riot, believes at least 200 to 300 people, mostly blacks, perished in the two days of fighting.
"We've had an intense study for over a year, just looking at death figures," Ellsworth said. "I think we are now convinced this is the largest single incident of racial violence in American history."
The commission already has located 62 living black survivors, looked into reports of airplanes bombing blacks and of bodies tossed into the Arkansas River.
The riot broke out when a white lynch mob clashed with blacks who came to protect a black man accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. The woman later refused to bring charges against him.
Mobs set fire to homes, businesses and churches in the thriving black business district called Greenwood. When the smoke cleared, more than 35 blocks were in ruins and dozens lay dead.
Many blacks left and never returned. The National Guard rounded up thousands of others and held them at the fairgrounds, convention hall and a baseball stadium.
For decades, the city seemed to bury those memories with the ashes of Greenwood. It was only in 1996 that it recognized the anniversary of the riot.
The next year, the Legislature created the commission when Tulsa lawmakers raised the issue of restitution.
State Rep. Don Ross, inspired by Florida's decision to pay the descendants of black victims of the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, originally sought payments for survivors.
Ross, who is black, now supports tax breaks for businesses that locate in low-income areas, ones he fels were robbed of their economic legacy by the riot.
"The only record of anybody getting payment as a result of the Tulsa disaster was a white man who owned a pawn shop where guns and ammunition were stolen for an assault on the black community," he said.
State Rep. Forrest Claunch, leader of the Republican caucus, isn't sure how controversial the issue will be when the commission submits its recommendation on reparations in January. But he sees no reason why this generation should pay for what happened 78 years ago.
"It becomes tantamount to saying we are entirely a product of our past and I don't believe that's true," he said.
Veneice Dunn Sims, a 94-year-old black survivor who previously recorded her memories on videotape for the panel, isn't sure of the need to "stir up stuff" from the past.
"I think with the progress that has been made since then, they ought to let a dead dog lie dead," Sims said.
She still can recall the pale blue dress she had to leave behind as she and her family fled. Her home - and the dress neatly laid out for a high school banquet - burned during the violence.
While Mrs. Sims doesn't see the need to stir up the past, if someone decides she should be paid for her losses, she wouldn't mind having something to leave for family members.
"If they offered, well yes, I'd take it," she said.
Written By KELLY KURT