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tv   Tulsa Race Massacre National Symposium - Scott Ellsworth Author ...  CSPAN  July 1, 2021 10:20pm-11:04pm EDT

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>> on may 31st, 1921, tensions over the arrest of a young black man for his apparent interactions with a white woman, let's talk armed mob of white men marching on the predominantly african american greenwood district in tulsa, oklahoma. over the next day, the neighborhood known as black wall street was burned to the ground, and hundreds of the african americans were killed. next, historian scott ellsworth, author of the groundbreaking, an american city and search for justice, discusses the massacre in the efforts of people seeking justice for victims and
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their families. this top is part of the symposium. they also provided the video. >> thank you, it's really great to be with you all here today. it's wonderful to be back home here in tulsa. i love coming back home. i think everyone here probably has some sense of the scope of the tulsa race massacre's, but i know this is being filmed and there may be others who watch it were less familiar. so just to remind everyone of what's a gigantic event this was, and the numbers only sort of do it justice. you have more than 1000 african american homes and businesses that were looted and burned to the ground. 10,000 people were made homeless. to this day, we do not know how many people died. but it's not just a question of numbers as well.
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it's not just this many businesses died. what was destroyed were to movie theaters, the dixie and the greenland, they set 1000 people and 750. two african american newspapers. a dozen churches were burned to the ground. 30 restaurants. 30 grocery stores and meat markets. a hospital. a public school. a library. a post office substation was burned as well. dress shops, cigar stores, hardware stores, automobiles, on and on and on. the amount of wealth that was lost, let me give you one other number to think about when we talk about this wealth. this week, the june issue of national geographic is arriving in peoples mailboxes. it covers the massacre. national geographic did some
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work in trying to figure out what was the amount of generational wealth that was lost during the massacre. how much money would be in greenwood today had the mask or not happened? and i'm not an economist or a business historian, so it seemed like a fairly simple methodology that they used. they figured out how much property was in greenwood that was black owned at the time. they figured out a dollar amount on that and then added a modest amount of interest over the years as the years went on. they came up with a figure of over 600 million dollars. that would be in greenwood today if the massacre had not happened. that is generations of college tuition. that's generations of house down payments. of seed money for new businesses. health insurance. of old age care. just name it, our quality of life that was gone. and the reality is, of course,
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that the massacres still cast a dark shadow over our town. and it's still there. william faulkner once said, the past isn't dead, it isn't even passed. that is the case today. now, somebody who wants to learn about this. a 12-year-old somewhere in london or chicago or torpedoed wants to learn about the tulsa race massacre today, that's a pretty easy thing to do. if you tied in tulsa race massacre into google, i'm not sure with the numbers right now, but i did at the other week and in 0.5 one seconds you get over 1 million different hits. there's just tons of material that is readily available. there are sites. there are articles on wikipedia, britannica, the library of congress and the chicago public library. they both have sites to the history of the tulsa massacre.
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virtually every photograph of the massacre that we have is now available online. there are extensive collections available at the department of -- the university of tulsa, the greenwood historical society, tulsa historical society. this once hidden tragedy, it's not secret anymore. now, this was not always the case. the truth of the matter is that for 50 years here in tulsa, the story of the tulsa race massacre's was actively suppressed. when the massacre happened, we call it the race riot. it was called the race right in those days. this is national news. this was front page of the new york newspapers and the papers in california. it made the times of london. it made the times of india. this was huge news all over the world.
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tell us a white city fathers realized they had a terrible pr problem. because here are these stories of people getting shot in the streets, of neighborhoods being burned to the ground, of railroad serviceman -- services being interrupted. of martial law being declared. so they realized early on that this is a story we need to tamp down. when they try to do first is they told the world that white tilson's were shamed what had happened. and that they were going to rebuild these 35 square blocks that had been obliterated. when they did instead is they try to steal the land where the greenwood commercial district had been. then move the african american community further north. now, black tilson's fought back and ignore that. they built with anything they could. charred bricks, lumber, orange crates. then african american lawyers of course defeated this. but other things happened as
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well. there is evidence that the tulsa police chief ordered his officers in the week after the riot, to go and confiscate, to go to the black-owned -- white owned photography studios in town and confiscated all the photographs and negatives of the massacre. that might account why it was so difficult to find any images of the massacre until well into the 1970s. other things happened as well. both the tulsa tribune and the tulsa world, they went to extreme lengths never to mention the massacre. and for decade after decade after decade. and most spectacularly, by the tulsa tribune. so in the 1930s, the tribune had a column in the odd and page called 15 years ago in
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tulsa. what they would do is they would go back to whatever the issue was 15 years ago -- earlier. they would find some stories and then put it together in a couple of columns. when the 15th anniversary of the massacre came up in 1936, they had a wealth of material to right. they were probably four or five additions of the tribune that day. gigantic headlines. everything is going on. instead, this is with the tribune wrote in 1936. 15 years ago today, miss caroline's kelly was a charming young hostess of the past week, having entertained as a lunch in a theater party for miss kathleen sinclair and her guests. miss julia morley, corset bouquets of roses and sweet peas. on and on and on. they have four items. it's as if this thing did not happen at all. but there was more to it than
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that as well. official records and documents started to disappear. the day reports the national guard, you won't find them. somebody took them and got rid of it. but would also happened is discussions of the massacre became discouraged to say the least in south tulsa. there was an oil man by the name campbell osborne. he wrote, quote, for a while, pictured postcards of the victims in awful poses were sold on the streets. and more than a few boasted about how many notches he had on his gun. but that starts to fade away. charles occur came to a similar conclusion. he wrote, quote, for 22 years i have been boosting tulsa. we have all been boosters and posters about our building, bank accounts and other assets.
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but the events of the past week, the massacre, will put a stop to the bragging for a while. i grew up in first presbyterian. i was baptized there. i was confirmed there. around the time my first book came out, first presbyterian put out a committed -- commemorative history. they spoke very glowingly about how the church had a sheltered african americans during the massacre. i'm sure they did, but when they neglected to point out was that three days later, they ran advertisements in the tribune announcing that the church had been fumigated with the implication being that now it's going to be safe for white people to come back. so there is this curtain of silence that comes down. i was born 1954. st. john's central high school. all of that. i had the mother of a classmate
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who told me how she and her husband and moved to tulsa in the fifties from a small town in kansas. they had heard of the massacre and they brought it up at a dinner party and she said, we were told in no uncertain terms that this is simply something you don't talk about. i've heard plenty of other stories from people of that era as well. the great irony though, is that the massacre also -- is also not being discussed publicly in the african american community. there is different reasons for this. part of it, the way to think about it, is to think of massacre survivors comparable to holocaust survivors. people who have gone through this horrific trauma. and like holocaust survivors as well as world war ii veterans and others, they often did not want to burden their children or grandchildren with these terrible stories of what
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happened to them. they wanted to put it in the past. they wanted to look towards a better future. what happens is i know black tulsans who are my age whose grandparents lost their homes and businesses in the massacre. but they did not learn about that until the 19 eighties or nineties. it was simply something that was not talked about. and newcomers as well coming to town, living in north tulsa, they experience that as well. maria brown was a nurses aide who had moved to tell so in the early twenties. she heard nothing whatsoever of the massacre despite living in the heart of greenwood. but as one of the elderly white patients that she cared for at the north of tulsa nursing home slipped further into dementia, he started talking about what had happened. then maria's daughter, michelle, then said, quote, my mother cared for an elderly white woman who, on his deathbed, rambled on about the smoke and
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fire and the shooting and the killing. so baffled, maria brown, the mother, turn to the family of her oklahoma born husband. what is he talking about, she asked? what's happened in tulsa? only her in laws pressure away. look, they said, we don't talk about that around here. don't you go asking about it either. the reality is even the oklahoma eagle, which has been the flagship newspaper in greenwood for decades, since the thirties, even they for several decades avoided talking about the massacre. on the 25th anniversary in 1946, the paper published exactly one sentence about the massacre. here is the sentence, and it was buried in an editorial about the ku klux klan nationally. the sentence was, in 1921, racial bitterness, which had been rooting for several years, culminated in one of the most disastrous race riots in the nation's history. period.
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it did not even mention that it wasn't tulsa. okay. so the bottom line is that, you know, the story of the massacre was covered up. john franklin said, to also lost its sense of honesty. it did for about 50 years. so the question is, how did it come out? how did we know about this? why are we all here today? how did that all happen? this is a story i write about more extensively in my new book. but i want to talk a bit about how that happened and give you all a couple of stories so you can get a handle on what is going on. and it's very important to first recognize the key group. the key group was a group of survivors, not a large group, but over the decades they kept telling this story. they would tell the story and talk about it publicly and try to support having this thing
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passed on. probably the most -- the single most important person there was wta williams. his parents owned a theater. they owned the williams building their. they owned the east and garage. they were royalty in greenwood. wta was 16 at the time of the massacre. he read the editorial in the tulsa tribune. he watched his african american world war i that jump on stage on the afternoon to may 31st at the greenland theater and say shut this place down. we aren't going to have a lynching here. he watched as the black bets gathered on greenwood to decide whether they should go downtown to confront that white lynch mob. then the entire night of may 31st, he helped reload his father's 30 30 rifle, and repeating shotgun, as his father fought off the whites
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were trying to invade greenwood. then he watched the mass invasion on the morning of june 1st and survived the massacre. he's very important. so is maple little. maple was always absolutely upfront about it. her and her husband lost their café during the massacre. they lost their home. she was somebody who would always talk about it. but i think it's important to remember that talking about it also can have consequences. few people knew this better than a woman by the name of nancy feldman. nancy feldman was born nancy goodman. she was not originally from tulsa. she grew up in wealth and luxury on the north shore of chicago. her family lived in a mansion a couple of blocks from the shores of lake michigan. they had a live in chauffeur. her mother felt that the clothes that young man sees little girl that she could buy
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in downtown chicago were not good enough. so even during the great depression, she would go to new york and buy outfits for her precious daughter. nancy was different. in high school, she realized early on that she did not want to be a part of the kind of crazy boy crazy said that the other girls were. she wasn't interested in that. she became a competitive swimmer and should became a world-class swimmer and diver. to the point where if the 1940 olympics had happened in london, she would have competed for the united states. but then she had a terrible accident. she broke her back. that ended her swimming career. she threw all of her efforts into studying. so she graduates from northwestern in three years and then became one of the handful of women to attend the university of chicago law school during the war. she meets raymond feldman, this
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charming world war ii veteran, jewish from tulsa. they get married and then, and 1946, she moved to tulsa. it was a shock. she lived in this urbane, liberal jewish household. she said as soon as the train got to the oklahoma border, the train stopped and the train car passengers became segregated. up until that point, blacks and whites could sit anywhere. but once they crossed into oklahoma, that changed. she was so outraged that she sat in the black car and refused to move. so here she comes into tulsa. her husband is a lawyer and gets a job off -- right away. she tries to get a job, but she can't because she's a woman. she said whenever i would have a chance for a job interview, the first question would be how fast can you type? partners in the law firm would invite her out to dinner and all that. she got so frustrated that she finally threw in the towel on being a lawyer and just started to teach at the university of
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tulsa in the sociology department. now, the university of tulsa and the forties, it is a local university. it is not a national or international school. all the students are white with maybe an occasional asian or near eastern student, petroleum engineering student. all of the kids are local. they aren't from chicago or st. louis. so she starts to teach sociology and she throws herself into it. since she had been an athlete, she was interested in recreation. so she ended up meeting the only african american professional employee of the city of tulsa parks department. a man by the name of robert fair child. robert their child was someone very important to me later on. he knew dick roland. he worked with dick roland. he was a key source for me. but he started to tell nancy about the race massacre. she was just flabbergasted. she heard of the 1919 chicago
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race riot. she goes to her in laws and says, did this happen? they say, yes it did. so the next day in class, she tells her students that she has met this robert fairchild and they talked about the race right. they all look at her like she's crazy. what are you talking about? nothing like that ever happened here. you're nuts. she said, okay, go home and ask your parents. they will tell you. so they went home and asked their parents and they came to school the next day and our parents said no, nothing like this ever happened at all. so this is around 1947, 1948, something like that. so she then brings robert very child into class to speak. that's kind of like the edge for oklahoma race relations in 1948. but he comes into class, he speaks to the class and tells a story. she thought that would be the end of it. but of course, that was not the end of it because her dean then called her in and said if she ever did that again that she would be fired. but for nancy, this is what she
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told me. she said that was not the worst of it. remember, my students were all white tulsa kids. they had all grown up here. yet before i brought bob fair child into class, not a single one had ever heard about the riot. in less than 30 years, it had been erased from the collective memory. can you imagine going to new york city right now to a high school, and no one had ever heard of 9/11? this is an astonishing event. so she does not turn out to be the only one who starts pushing back against this, of course. many of you have heard of and we learn. ed wheeler was as straight and narrow as you could imagine. he was a young businessman in tulsa late sixties early seventies. he had been in infantry captain in vietnam. he had been a great supporter
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of the republican party. when oklahoma was still reliably dick -- democratic. he had tons of energy. so he's a businessman during the day, but he also created a story, a radio program that ran on sunday nights. he called it the guilt free store. he would take stories from the west and tell stories and he would have sound effects and lots of cowboys and indians and guns going off and all this stuff. and they were fun. he put a lot of work into them. i remember, you know, hearing them as a teenager. but he had also caught wind of the massacre. so as the 50th anniversary started to approach in 1971, he decided i'm going to research this. i'm going to write a story about it for the chamber of commerce magazine. we are just going to finally put it out in the open. so he goes to work and he
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discovers all of these records are missing. he starts to wonder, he said it just seemed deliberate. don't you write that article. don't do it. he lived it like 54th and madison with his wife and infant child. they started getting phone calls all through the night threatening their lives. threatening his wife's life. threatening the child life. one day he went out onto his doorstep on the way to work, and there was a dead chicken laying on it. another day he went out to the car and there was a note on the windshield of his car that said, best check under the hood next time -- next stop. meaning that we are going to bomb your car if you do it. look, this is a guy who fought in vietnam. he knew what was going on. he said i was not personally worried myself, i was concerned for my child and my wife. so they moved in with their in laws. ahead went ahead and wrote the story. an editor said, this is the best thing we have ever seen.
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there is no way we are ever going to print it. meanwhile, there was a young liberal editor at the tulsa chamber of commerce magazine by the name of larry sylvie. he said i will publish it. the hell with it, i will publish it. he prepared to do that and then the executive board at the metropolitan chamber of commerce heard about it. in then the first time in their history, they overruled it and kill the article. so the reality is that this thing is shut down. but there were things that people were not prepared to deal with. that person is don ross. don ross, i don't think there is a single person out there in some ways who's had a bigger impact in terms of trying to get the story of the massacre out. and also coloring the way that we understand it. some of you all know don, but he was born here in tulsa. he was raised until so. partially in [inaudible] . he graduates in 1959 or so. goes to college briefly, and
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into the air force. he comes back. works as a union -- the first african american union labor and this -- works undergrad there. gets involved in politics. civil rights movements here in tulsa, and he goes on. along the line he starts writing for the oakland -- oklahoma rioters. he's a great writer. studied, reverent, the whole thing. he had heard about this tulsa race riot we cold in those days, in fact is running from w. d. williams, and he decided that he is going to do something about. it's in late 1968, he decided that he's going to break the taboo in north tulsa until the story to the masses. he did it, in a series of articles. he reintroduced, you know, various details referring to neat wall street.
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he talks about that and he breaks the taboo. he later said that he caught hill for doing all of that. or bring this up, why are you doing all of this? but that was the process. and then to three years later, he ends up publishing the story and a small african american magazine. so, the story starts to get out. and in the seventies and into the eighties, now i play a role in this as well. growing up until said in 1960, even as a kid i occasionally heard adults talking about the race riot, navy neighbors or something like that, but when you walk into the room they would change the subject. they lower the voices. nobody in my family lived in tulsa 1921. there wasn't a source of that. i had heard stories of bodies floating down the arkansas river. machine guns, planes, all of
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that. somehow by the summer of 1966. i also knew that in june 1921, whatever this thing was. and one day and that summer my two best friends and i, we were goofing around and we went to the brand-new city county library. we wanted to hang out anyway because it's air conditioned, we will get in minor trouble into all the stuff. but one day we saw something that we've never seen before, which was a microphone machine. and we were dead set in determine they were gonna use this thing. we're filling with the dials and all of that, all of us and here comes this librarian marching over. and she was brilliant, because rather than show us away she taught us how to use the machine and taught us how to do micro film readings. you are all these big metal cabinets with wheels, micro film, old issues of the world. and i remember june 1921,, so the first role that we put into
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the machine is of the world for that day. we are just flabbergasted. these giant headlines, 100 killed in race riot. marshall law, declared machine guns, all of that. we're 12 years old and we don't have the wherewithal to try to understand what the heck is going on. but i knew at that point that my hometown did have -- and that that was real. but of course, as a college student in the summer of 1975, we worked a small college in rural oregon, and we had to write a senior thesis, are right about interviews with w. d. williams, who was a great breakthrough for me. and understanding what's going on, that later becomes -- it came out 1982. it got minor coverage. not a whole lot of coverage. a survivor storybook party for me.
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it is very humbling to have these ancient folks who do well have been adults in the massacre, with their white hair and their walkers and canes, walking together books i. and that was a very meaningful moment to me. i could tell you that death and he promised land was the second most stolen book at the tulsa city council library system not only to the main caveats go but all the branch copies did to. one a chirac just send them a box of books. but things started to open up. a bit here in there but the moment that changes everything is in the spring of 1995 when the federal building is bombed in oakland city. remember, this is pre-9/11. this is gigantic. the today show flew its entire new york crew from manhattan to oklahoma city to broadcast live for a week. the host of the today show was -- first african american newscast
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host. during that week, don ross, remember don ross? he's now, oklahoma state legislation, representing greenwood and he needs john ross, or, they meet brian gamble who says that mr. gambles fourth closest -- there's another story that's never got the attention it has needed. ross gave him a copy of death and promise. ten days later, don and i each got a call from a today show producer that said that on the 75th anniversary, the today show will do a story. this was gigantic. because with the exception of an op-ed in the washington post in 1982 when my book came out there had not been a news story in a national news media about the massacre since 1920. so lot of things start coming together, black wall street money is raised for it and the memorial, there will be
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survivors. but nbc comes and the interview, and film a bunch of survivors, fill me as well. the -- they put together this story. this is great but i thought about two weeks ago i realized, shoot, if the today show is doing a story about that i can leverage that to get some more press. so, i got on the phone and i got the new york times, washington post, associated press, national public ready, i think upi was still an existence all to agree to do stories. so, when the 75th anniversary happened, all of a sudden there was all of this national news coverage, okay? but here is the trick, because ross was smart. he then took all of that to the governor and the state legislature and said, hey, wait a second. you know, we have this horrible event here, there is never an official report on it, we need to create a commission on it. so, they agreed to do that, the
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tulsa race riot commission. i'm sure that the legislation said, will give these guys a few thousand dollars, they can do their little reports, we will ignore. it's maidan ross had other ideas. and he is out to win reparations for survivors. he also knew how to count votes. to make sure that there was a majority of commissioners who were in favor of reparations. so the commission is established, i am hired as the league's car roller along with john oak who is very busy. to, you know, helped create the report, do research. and, you know, i tried to think, what am i going to? do because there's this feeling amongst the commissioners, those white people are still holding on to all of these records. we need to see them. and i thought, man, there are no records. i went and looked, they are not there, they are gone. what could i do to help make a contribution? it was at that point that i decided that it was time, number one to figure out how
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many people died but also to search for the masquerades. so the first thing that i did was go to a survivor community for people who had i known for a very long time and said, do you want me to do this? and to a woman and a man, they all said, please do sir. so, i want to don ross and they said, i can't imagine anyone in the african american community who would not want to know where this was. i want the commission they said yeah, do it. and i got a lot of help very quickly. the renowned forensic anthropologist, snow, landed me his expertise and also was able to bring in state medical examiner and state archaeologists and then i got an absolute dream secret weapon which was a crew cut bug i forklift salesman and cpa, lifelong republican named dick warner who was a volunteer at tulsa -- and he was also mr. tulsa. you want to know where the all
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middle house was, asked dick. if you want to know where jay paul getty was when he was a young man, asked dick. if you want to know where you can get a decent chicken for ads to drake at 3:00 on a thursday afternoon, he knew it. but he ended up being a brilliant national researcher. the other thing was this, is that he had a certain way about things that he could get doors to open from recalcitrant city workers, and employees. he could talk his way into these back rooms that had been difficult for me, you know. 15 years earlier, 20 years earlier as a semi long year college student in a thrift store county shirt. they didn't want to deal with me at all. we did a lot of work, we interviewed 300 people, survivors, eyewitnesses, sanitary workers, funeral home directors. you name it. we found records that nobody
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looked at in 80 years, and we ended up identifying three areas in town of cemeteries, new block park, and the historic booker ty washington cemetery, role in the works memorial gardens now 91st street at harvard, or whatever it is. african american cemetery. where we became convinced that mask victims were buried in unmarked graves. the state archaeologists got involved. they started doing work. the local associated press -- we've been quiet about this because i did not want to raise expectations they were going to find anything. i wanted to see if we could get close. but a local associated press in tulsa, kelly kirk she caught wind of this story and wrote a story about it in 1999. and the words mass graves were just like a knee on the sign. the story becomes national.
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so, 60 minutes comes, abc news night line, journalist from japan, sweden, switzerland, england, welcome to do stories about the race massacre. unfortunately, our effort got caught up in the politics of the day, and the politics of the commission. so, we were shut down, shut down first by the race commission, and then we are shut down by the city, obviously. we were crushed and disappointed by all of that. i put away my files and i remember thinking, someday somebody is going to want to look at this, i don't know whether it will be in my lifetime or not. but they moved on to other things, and there were people -- we need to find these graves, these people, for 20 years a long lonely period. and then in 2018, 2019 i started hearing rumors that the
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city was interested in getting the investigation going again. the newly elected mayor had in fact reached out to carry, the state archaeologists. i have to say -- it's council before he was mayor, he tried to get the city investigation going, but then it was shut down. so, he has a history in this. all right. in 2019, i got contacted by the mayor's office and he asked me to head up a new reinvigorated -- as you know, we've been at this now for a while. we have done a lot more interviews. we have indemnified another additional site which is next to new block park which is a homeless encampment known as the canes wherever leave that a mass grave exists there. we did our first excavation in
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july. it turned out to be a bust. thought we had it, but in october we discovered a mass grave in oak line cemetery. and on tuesday, we are going to begin exuding that grave with the idea to see -- these people were thrown away. their loved ones were all being held under armed bars in these internment camps. they were never told what happened to their husband, brother, father, aunt, they were not allowed. they were never told where they were. it's our duty as a city to bring that back. and the idea is that we will study them to see what we can do to possibly identify them, extract dna, and see what we can do, but then they will be reburied with honor, and put somewhere memorialized. my belief is that, if we have a proper memorial, it might be something like the tomb of the unknown soldier, something like that in arlington. this is not only going to become a shrine to victims of the massacre, it is going to become a shrine to victims of
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racist violence in america that has gone on for centuries. and i believe that this will become a national monument. i want to shut up here, but i do want to just end with one thing. you know, this story is out there, okay? the story of the massacre is out. there are still some big questions. and the only questions that we don't know for a long time, but this notion that we really don't know what happened,, law, we don't believe. it we know a lot about. this effort to find the victims of the massacre, i believe it will go on. we have more work to do, there is another piece of work that we have not done that absolutely has to happen. and the fact of the matter is, without a doubt, and three remaining survivors of the massacre, but they have descendants of any and all survivors of the massacre deserve some form of financial restitution for what happened
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to them and their families in 1921. >> it is not simply a case of people who tried to murder them and kill their loved ones and friends, destroyed their homes, destroyed their businesses and destroy their futures. their city government let them down. their state government let them down. the federal government let them down. they did not even do any sort of investigation into what had happened. and the insurance companies let them down, some of whom still exist today who reneged on paying the claims that were made. this is unfinished work that we need to do. it's not going to be easy. look, in all honesty, the question of reparations is a complicated subject. anyone who says it isn't is fooling themselves. but in this case, the massacre is a discreet, finite event. it did not last very long, less than 16 hours. it's going to be hard, but i think we can identify these
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people and i think it's the right thing to do. thank you so much. [applause]
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>> on may 31st, 1921, tensions over the arrest of a young black man for his interactions with a white woman led to a armed mob of white men marching on the predominantly african american greenwood district in tulsa, oklahoma. over the next day, the neighborhood known as black wall street was burned to the ground, and hundreds of african americans were killed. up next, anneliese bruner, the great granddaughter of massacre survivors mary jones parrish, discusses the events of 100 years ago, and the steps she believes are needed for tulsa to heal. this top is part of a national symposium held by the john hope franklin center for reconciliation. they also provided the video. >> asou

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