Blood on Black Wall Street: Excavating the Past
Kavin Ross: We're at the beginning of truth.
Trymaine Lee: I'm standing in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a guy named Kavin Ross. Kavin's an activist, a photographer. He's a big guy with a bellowing voice. (BACKGROUND VOICE) And he can tell you everything you'd want to know about the history of this place.
Ross: On this place where we are standing, where we are walkin' through, is one of Tulsa's earliest cemeteries in the city.
Lee: (BACKGROUND VOICE) We're here in the cemetery next to a busy highway. Because it's central to the search for the truth that Kavin's talkin' about. One hundred years ago this week, the Greenwood District, a bustling sector known as Black Wall Street, was burned to the ground by a white mob.
The tragedy known today as the Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the history of this country, and until recently, one of the least known. For decades the government wouldn't even acknowledge that the massacre ever happened.
Ross: We've been told a lie. We've been bamboozled, you noticed it, led astray all these years. And in the pretense that it never happened, or don't talk about it.
Lee: The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics recorded 26 Black victims back in 1921. But experts estimate the number is closer to 300. And none of the white perpetrators were ever held responsible for the murders.
Ross: So the Black folks during that time did not have the opportunity to be able to heal, to mourn the loss. They were left with ashes and rubble and heartache.
Archival Recording: White political leaders tried to bury the truth along with all those Black victims of the riot. And they pretty much succeed for 76 years until 1997 when the state legislature appointed a special commission of 11 people to finally uncover the truth about the horrific riot of 1921.
Lee: Twenty years ago, Kavin helped recognized the testimony of survivors for this official commission which at the time called the massacre a race riot. They eventually published a report in 2001. It was the first official accounting of what really happened. But without an accurate death toll, Tulsa can't fully face its past. So Kavin has been working to unearth the most devastating proof of this massacre, the bodies of the dead.
Ross: We had stories that they were thrown in the Arkansas River which is just to the south of this cemetery. We heard stories they were buried in different parts, not only around the State of Oklahoma. We even had stories that bodies were buried underneath this freeway.
Ross: You know, and but the previous administration said, "Well, we're not digging them up."
Lee: There's no one reason why the effort to look for mass graves failed when the 2001 commission report came out. There were issues with funding and permissions, community pushback. And some officials said they didn't want to disturb other nearby graves. But as the centennial approached, Kavin and other activists and leaders in the Black community kept the pressure on. And in 2018 the white Republican mayor, G. T. Bynum announced the city would open an investigation into possible mass grave sites.
G. T. Bynum: This is a murder investigation. And whether you were murdered in 2018 or 1921, the city has a compact with you that we will do everything we can to find out what happened to you and bring that to justice.
Lee: Kavin is now a chairman for the 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee. The committee referred back to that 2001 report to know where to dig. Three possible sites were named.
Ross: Oaklawn was one of them. Another one was Newblock Park which is named after a mayor who was a Klansman. And the other one was formerly called the Booker T. Washington Memorial Gardens Cemetery which is now called Rolling Oaks.
Lee: The oversight committee decided to excavate Oaklawn first.
Archival Recording: Crews battled the heat for more than a week hoping to find answers.
Lee: A research team broke ground last summer, but didn't find any remains.
Archival Recording: We actually were able to confirm that it is not the location that we are looking for.
Lee: But when they tried a different spot in Oaklawn this past October--
Archival Recording: Yesterday leaders in the search for victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre announcing they found a mass grave. Officials though still working to identify--
Lee: --I had to see it for myself, this long secret history unearthed against the odds.
Ross: You're lookin' at 15 to 25 yards of a trench that was dug here back in October.
Lee: Most of Oaklawn looks like a typical cemetery, a big grassy stretch studded with headstones. But where we're standing, there's a swath of exposed brown earth packed down by tire marks.
Ross: We've dug to the depths, about six feet down, when we started seein' the evidence of burial furniture inside of it. And then a couple of more feet, we were able to see the top layers of the coffins. First it was two together, then another set, and then another set.
Lee: And that's what you found. So here we see the upturned ground. We see where it's--
Lee: --the dirt has been turned over clearly.
Lee: And beneath this ground here--
Lee: --you found caskets?
Ross: Caskets. Caskets, about 12 of them. And we were thinkin' that there's more than that. Because somehow we were able to reveal a set of steps goin' deep inside the trench. So we think that we were seein' the possibility that there are more underneath them because of the step.
Lee: That discovery was a breakthrough.
Ross: Man, when the bulldozers crack this ground and reveal those coffins, just the sight of that first coffin, it was confirmation of the stories that was told to me over the decades by those survivors, the research that I was part of in the early days of the commission when it was active, and even the things I had put my life on pause in search of the evidence that had been revealed.
Lee: Talking to Kavin, you understand this investigation is about more than confirming the death toll or identifying remains. It's about healing. Is it possible at all to move on without finding, acknowledging, you know, and paying proper respects?
Ross: I don't think so. 'Cause it'll be a sore spot, a unhealed spot, and mainly because there was no talk of it. White folks didn't want to talk about it because it put a bad spot on the City of Tulsa. Black folks didn't want to talk about it because those who perpetrated the crimes and atrocities were still alive and was threatening another riot. So nobody talked about it. Only way I can see this happening, and it's not gonna happen overnight, is constant dialogue between all of us includin' our young. Let them be able to learn from what has been hidden.
Lee: And this dialogue has to include white Tulsans.
Archival Recording: There was a conspiracy of silence for decades in this community.
Archival Recording: Did you learn about it in school?
Archival Recording: No. Nothin' like that was taught in school.
Archival Recording: Nobody had talked about it. In fact, people specifically would avoid the subject.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. Today as the City of Tulsa finally excavates its blood-stained soil, we examine how a massacre of this scale was almost erased from public record. And we tell the story of white Tulsans, of those who kept their ancestors' secrets, those who did it, and what it's like 100 years later to reckon with that family history.
If you try to find the names of white perpetrators of the massacre, it's near impossible. "A white mob" is a phrase that comes up over and over again. And even before we got to Tulsa, people told us that most white folks would be pretty reluctant to talk. Dozens of our emails and phone calls to old Tulsa families went unanswered. But Joy, she was an exception.
Joy Avery: My name is Marilyn Joy Avery. M-A-R-I-L-Y-N J-O-Y A-V-E-R-Y. But I only use my middle name.
Lee: I met Joy a few weeks back. She's 75 with feathered, silvery blonde hair. And she was wearing this bedazzled Route 66 T-shirt.
Avery: This is one of my favorite shirts because my grandfather was considered the father of Route 66. He was one of the people that actually decided where the Route 66 would go.
Lee: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Avery: Well, I was born in 1946 in Tulsa and grew up here. My mother was Ruth Sigler Avery. And she was born in 1914. And she was seven years old when she saw the race massacre.
Lee: Joy's mother, Mrs. Sigler Avery, was a witness to the massacre. But unlike most white Tulsans of her generation, she chose not to keep the secret.
Avery: Well, my mom would talk about it a lot at family gatherings, at Thanksgiving and Easter and various times that all the family was together. And she would talk about how she was only seven years old when she saw this truck full of dead bodies.
And that one of them hit a pothole. And there was a little boy about her age on the top of this truck. And he turned his face at that point and looked directly toward her. And she said she had never seen any dead bodies before. And then this little boy her age looked at her straight in the face. And she was petrified.
Lee: Wow. So she's carrying this story from that day with her entire life.
Lee: Do you have any sense of how that affected her, looking over and seeing that Black boy's eyes, that dead boy, how that might have affected her? Why she held onto it for so long?
Avery: I think she was very upset about it. But I think probably even more upset because I didn't believe her.
Lee: Now, I just want to sit with that for one second. Joy and her sister, they didn't even believe their own mother.
Avery: I'm sure my father knew that it was true. And people around her generation knew that it was true. But she couldn't get her daughters to believe it. Because we had no experience of it.
Lee: So you heard it from your mother. But did you learn about it in class at all? Was it ever part of your--
Avery: Oh, no.
Lee: --school lesson?
Avery: In fact we challenged her several times and said, "Mom, nobody's written about it. Nobody talks about it. If you witnessed it, you're gonna have to do the research on it. Because there is nothing in any books. There's nothing in civics class, in history of what's gone on in Tulsa." Nobody had talked about it.
Lee: Joy came up in Tulsa in the 1950s and '60s. The silence was deep and purposeful. Police records from the time of the massacre disappeared. Newspaper articles went missing from the city library. And it wasn't taught in schools until the '90s, if at all. All this motivated Mrs. Sigler Avery to embark on a mission of her own, to give a thorough account of what she saw that day, to prove that it happened.
Avery: Well, for about 30 years she was talking to as many people as she could about what they had experienced.
Lee: Her materials were so comprehensive and so unusual, so desperately needed, that they were accepted by Oklahoma State University at Tulsa. Her work was even used in a 2001 commission report about the massacre where they called her a one-woman research bureau, all because she was convinced that this history had been deliberately covered up.
I have to wonder as your mother is uncovering more and more about what happened here in Tulsa with the massacre, did you discover that some of your neighbors, friends, or maybe even family participated on the wrong side, as you say, in the massacre?
Avery: Actually I was more worried about waking up to having a cross burned on our front lawn.
Avery: Because it was really scary. There were a lot of important people. When I was reading about the Ku Klux Klan, there were mayors and there were highly influential people who belonged to the Ku Klux--
Lee: And so your mother kind of unearthing this stuff, you started to say to yourself like, "There might be people who want to keep this a secret so much so that maybe we're in danger."
Avery: I began to feel that way.
Lee: Wow. How have you in the course of your adult life, and you have all that material that your mother, all the research, how did it change the way you viewed this community and race relations? Like, did you have to come to grips with the reality of your community also?
Avery: I didn't really know how to.
Lee: Why do you think it is that there are so many white people who are still so reluctant to just embrace the truth, and at least confront the truth?
Avery: I would just say shame.
Lee: Yeah. Is there anything that you've come across in your mother's research or heard later that haunts you, that shocks you? Is there a certain aspect of anything that you've learned that sits with you?
Avery: Well, it's seems strange that it takes 100 years for people to 'fess up with what happened and tell the stories.
Avery: And I think Marlin has been doing a really good job of--
Lee: Marlin Lavanhar, (BACKGROUND VOICE) who Joy is talkin' about, is the reverend at All Souls Unitarian Church in South Tulsa.
Avery: Marlin Lavanhar gave a sermon several years ago that was telling about my mom. And it was talking about the race massacre. And I think that was good in opening up the topic for other people to research.
Reverend Marlin Lavanhar: You know, it seems like a lot of people right now are tryin' to rush towards this idea of reconciliation. But truly in order to get there we have to tell the truth. And we have to do some repair.
Lee: I talked with Reverend Lavanhar in the church's sanctuary. He's composed, the kind of guy who thinks carefully about everything he says.
Lavanhar: Well, I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. I've been in Tulsa for 20 years. And I arrived just at the time that the report was comin' out about the massacre. So it was 80 years later. And finally the community was getting the knowledge of what had happened for the first time in an official way.
Lee: Over the past few years, All Souls has played a central role in pushing white Tulsans to reckon with their history.
Lavanhar: So we have this sort of split in the community right now where you have a lot of people, certainly people in the establishment, and a lot of white people quite frankly, who think we're in this period of reconciliation finally after 100 years. And then there's a lot of the rest of us who believe that we need to still tell the truth about what happened. And we don't know that truth, particularly as it pertains to the white side of the equation and the perpetrator side.
Lee: And then this tug of war between whether you shield yourself from the truth, or whether you dig deeper. Your church is kind of squarely in the middle of that. Tell me the story about how your church has played some role in what happened.
Lavanhar: Yeah, so our church has an interesting history as it relates to the massacre. Our church was founded just a few weeks before the massacre happened at the YWCA. We didn't have a building. There was 27 people. But one of those 27 people was Richard Lloyd Jones who was the editor and owner of the Tulsa Tribune. And it was his paper, the evening paper, that broke the story that accused Dick Rowland of accosting Sarah Page in the elevator, which of course sparked the mob at the courthouse, at the jail, which eventually turned into the massacre.
Lee: That story, Reverend Lavanhar is talkin' about, the one in Jones' paper, ran with the infamous headline, "Nab Negro." The article said Dick Rowland, a young Black shoe shiner, assaulted a white elevator attendant named Sarah Page. The story turned out to be false.
Lavanhar: Somethin' that also bothers a lot of us is afterward on June 4th, while the embers were still burning in the fire, he wrote an editorial that said, "I make no apology for what this paper has said for many years about cleaning up." And then he talked about Greenwood in the worst possible terms, devaluing the lives of people, devaluing the community and what it stood for and what it was.
Lee: So "cleaning up," he defends in his words, "cleaning up," which in fact was a murder, a massacre of hundreds of Black people in this community. He defend that.
Lavanhar: Yeah, and not only that, he also was among those who helped to say, "This was a riot," blamed it on the Black community. So therefore, the Black community did not receive reparations of any kind. Because they became blamed for that.
Lee: Richard Lloyd Jones, he played a key role in sparking the violence, and then burned the truth of the massacre.
Lavanhar: You know, in our congregation, we make no apology. This man, he did what he did. And we condemn it. We condemn it outright, the impact of it, the results of it. At the same time, we've been workin' as a community for decades now since the early '60s, about 1960 when my predecessor, Dr. John Wolf, came here and became a leader in the community in the civil rights movement. This church has really dedicated itself since that time to being an advocate for racial justice.
Lee: Reverend Lavanhar is using his position from the pulpit to teach folks about the massacre and to encourage his white congregants who make up 90% of the church to take responsibility.
Lavanhar: So it's one thing for us to look back and point our fingers at what people did 100 years ago. But it's another thing to really do the work that we need to do to change ourselves today.
Lee: One way All Souls is trying to do that: a program called REWIRE. People learn about privilege and how white supremacy permeates American culture. Over the course of nine months, participants meet and talk through what they're learning. Reverend Lavanhar knows how complicate this can be for white people because he's had to do this work on himself.
Lavanhar: I'm a straight white male with higher education, American citizenship, cisgendered, all of those things that have given a person status within American culture. And so even though it wasn't told to me directly, indirectly I had got this message, like, it was people like me that built this country, the greatest country in the world and all this stuff that inflated my sense of what it meant to be who I was in the world.
And so to do the work of dismantling racism and rewiring our understanding of white supremacy and whiteness, it's not just dropping, you know, down to the level of equality with everybody. It's really goin' from this sense of bein' this God's gift to the world almost down into a deep sense of, "Wow, it was the legacy of whiteness that's been so violent and so terrible and atrocious."
Lee: But in Tulsa and a lot of places in this country, that's a tall order.
Lavanhar: So it's a long fall for a lot of white people to learn the history and realize that's a reckoning with our own sense of self and identity.
Lee: After the break, what happens when white Tulsans don't want to take part in this reckoning? Stick with us.
Lee: All Souls Unitarian Church has been working to address the consequences of the 1921 massacre for two decades. Reverend Marlin Lavanhar estimates that about a dozen congregants have left the church because of that work.
Lavanhar: They felt betrayed by me in some way, that I'm changing the church or I'm changing the direction of the church, or I've somehow chosen sides. And they feel like I've abandoned them for some reason or another in this work.
Lee: And remember Richard Lloyd Jones, the All Souls co-founder whose newspaper helped spark the massacre, his descendants attended the church for years. But today, there's only one left.
Lavanhar: Yeah, some of the members of his family have left the congregation because of the work, and since I've come and started to speak unapologetically about my understanding of what he did and his impact on this community. And so there have been some broken relationships over that. And it's been really disappointin'.
Lee: But how do you reckon with that? I mean, is it, "You know, to make omelets, you have to break some eggs and it's for the greatest good"? Or do you second guess some of the decisions you made about leading this church in a certain direction? Or how do you process all that?
Lavanhar: I certainly don't second guess it. And so I know we're on the right track and doin' the right things for the right reasons. I mean, if we tried to please everybody, then we're pleasing nobody and we're not makin' a difference. So I think we have to take a stand, let the chips fall where they will. And maybe in the long run of history some of the folks will come back around.
Lee: On his journey to reckon with Tulsa's history, Reverend Lavanhar has also lost Black church members.
Lavanhar: Folks who came in and said, "Hey, this is a safe space that you've created for us as African Americans and other things," who've ended up leaving and feeling like it wasn't a safe place. And those broken relationships have been the hardest part for me, that have left the deepest wounds.
I can't remember the name, but somebody asked the question, "Is there room among the woke for the waking?" And here's the issue that we struggle with as a church. Because we want to be a safe place for folks to do the work. And at the same time, there's always new people comin' into the community. And they're just starting their journey.
Lee: So in this journey, have there been moments when you feel like you've fallen short?
Lavanhar: There have so many times when I have not lived up to the highest that I think I can be. But it's a learning journey. And we have to be ready to apologize when we make mistakes. And I'm as human as everybody else.
Lee: He says one of his biggest mistakes happened back in 2017. Reverend Lavanhar had been preaching a lot about the massacre and the fight for racial justice today. And one of his congregants, a descendant of Richard Lloyd Jones, she didn't like what she was hearing.
Lavanhar: I'm trying to argue the case about her grandfather that was different from mine. I said, "You know, that's not my story. That's not how I see it. And I can't preach that. I can't teach that to the congregation." I said, "However, I'll tell you what. Why don't I give you the chance to speak and tell your side of the story from your perspective as a family historian and that kind of thing?"
Lee: The woman agreed.
Lavanhar: And I said, "You can fill the pulpit in one of our services while I'm away and tell that story." And so she did. And I'll tell you one of the biggest mistakes was I was away. I did this when I wasn't here, which at the time I wasn't thinking. I couldn't imagine that it would go the way that it went and that it would happen the way that it happened. So unfortunately it was a pretty explosive--
Lee: How bad was it? How'd it go? What did she say?
Lavanhar: Okay, so what happened was that it included quoting her grandfather's, some of the worst things he said, which included the N word over and over again in reference to Greenwood. And just, you know--
Lee: (MAKES NOISE) It just--
Lavanhar: --yeah, so you can imagine, people are goin', "What is happening here?" And so it was incredibly painful.
Lee: So are you getting phone calls? Or--
Lavanhar: Yeah, I'm starting to get phone calls and texts. And all of a sudden, and the problem is you had long-time folks who knew this person, were friends with this person, who disagreed with a lot of what she was saying but appreciated that we have a congregation that would give this person a chance to speak their truth against what the senior minister and other people are saying.
And so they were appreciating it. And some of them even applauded when she finished. Which you could imagine to the folks who were goin', "What is happening here?" This is the worst thing that they could imagine ever. And they said, "This isn't what I thought this church even stood for." And it was just a hell of--
Lee: So how did that--
Lavanhar: --a mess, messy.
Lee: --play out ultimately? So you're away. You get back. What happens?
Lavanhar: Well, so she also resigned from the church at the end of the message.
Lee: Have you had a conversation with her since?
Lavanhar: I have. I have. And it's just very painful, very painful.
Lee: Wow. We reached out to this woman. Richard Lloyd Jones' granddaughter. She didn't want us to use her full name. And she wouldn't talk to us on tape because she told our producer, "I really have no expectations of fairness." But she confirmed the story that she quoted her grandfather using the N word one time.
She told us she thinks Reverend Lavanhar is setting a tone at All Souls where, quote, "If you're Black, you're in the right. If you're white, you're racist. I felt like the church left me, so I left the church." She says she isn't racist and, quote, "I want reconciliation. But all I'm seeing is salt rubbing in the wounds."
Lavanhar: The reconciliation doesn't come just because we use that word reconciliation and we try to hold hands and sing Kumbaya together. The reconciliation comes because we have the hard conversations, we tell the truth about what happened, and we do what's appropriate to repair the damage that was created.
Bailey McBride: In general, Tulsa white people are not ready for real talk. I mean, I'm still not ready for real talk sometimes, right?
Lee: Bailey McBride is part of a new generation of white Tulsans who want to better than their ancestors.
McBride: How do we avoid white saviorism as we as white people engage in that work? How do we work alongside communities? How do we amplify community voice?
Lee: Bailey is 31 years old and works for an education equity non-profit. Talkin' to her, you can hear how much she's immersed herself in anti-racist work. Like Reverend Lavanhar, you get the sense Bailey chooses her words carefully. She's aware of her privilege. She attends All Souls and went through church's REWIRE program.
McBride: What was really special for me about that group was that it was inter-generational. And so that was one of the first spaces that I've been in where I was in there with folks that were in their 60s as well as folks that are my age, and I'm in my 30s, and folks who are little younger, a little older than me. So really you had all these different lived experiences.
Lee: Bailey actually learned about the massacre in school, a major shift from older generations, including her parents. Her family goes way back in Oklahoma, at least five generations. But at home what happened in 1921 wasn't talked about. Same goes for most of the white people she grew up with.
McBride: I think it's embarrassment. I think it's shame. And I think that the longer we go, the more time that we have to reflect, the more shame that folks feel. And so while there is that hope for reconciliation or that hope for coming to terms with what happened, they know that there's 100 years of inaction on the part of the city. And the actions that were taken were to the detriment of our Black community.
Lee: How did you personally arrive at this level of awareness? And obviously there's a language there, but kind of the true understanding of all the ripples and all the different forms of violence that has been heaped upon the Black community especially. How did you arrive at this moment?
McBride: Yeah, so I think a lot of it has to do with just engaging with people of color. And that's a big problem in Tulsa, is that we don't. The white community in Tulsa, the mid-town South Tulsa community doesn't go north of that bridge. And so thinking about just the things that my friends who are people of color have gone through and their family stories. And, you know, I can trace my family in a certain way. How can they trace their family? Or how can they not their family? And what does that say about Tulsa?
Lee: Bailey told me she's read books about the massacre and even had a chance to meet some of the survivors a few years ago. She dedicated a lot of time to anti-racist work, trying to be a good ally. So she wasn't prepared for what she learned last year on her way home from a Juneteenth celebration.
McBride: On Juneteenth of last year, I was leaving after the Reverend Al Sharpton had spoke. And I just didn't really want to drive. Because it was the day before the Trump rally that was set to happen here in Tulsa. And so I asked my mom to come get me and drive me home. We live two blocks from each other.
And as we were going through, she just offhand mentioned, "Oh, you know, your great grandfather was there." And, you know, I'm driving through downtown Tulsa. So I'm like, "My great grandfather was where? You know, was at a Trump rally? Like, what are talking about?"
She's like, "Oh, he was at the massacre." And, I mean, I was flabbergasted. I still am thinking about the way my heart dropped in that moment and the fact that I was leaving Juneteenth, you know, a celebration of, you know, freedom and of how far we've come and how far we still have to go, especially in Tulsa. And then to find out that I have a personal implication in that conversation around the race massacre."
Lee: So first of all, how come your mother didn't say to you ten years ago, 20 years ago? Did she say why she never addressed it?
McBride: So she only mentioned it because it was my grandfather on my father' side. And it's not, like, something she had grown up with. And so my grandfather had mentioned it offhand to her, I guess, in the car. They grew up in a little bit farther Southern town than where we are now. And I guess, it was the '20s. They were very poor. And I just had no reason to think that my family would come to Tulsa for a race massacre. Yeah, even just saying that out loud and thinking through that emotion is--
Lee: And what are the emotions? When you say that your family might have been involved in a race massacre, the murder of possibly hundreds of people. And you're engaged in this work. How do you even begin to process that?
McBride: I mean, I think first and foremost I just have to acknowledge that, like, my guilt and my shame and my processing is nothing compared to what Black Tulsans have to go through. But it's work that's important to do. And it's hard to do. And it takes folks actually asking the questions and being willing to push themselves into that hard space and lean into the discomfort, to hope that any of us are gonna move past this, or gonna start to remove some of these scars on the city. So I started asking questions of my grandfather. Because it was his father who--
Lee: You actually had a conversation with your grandfather about this.
McBride: Yeah. That's--
Lee: I gotta hear how actually this conversation went.
McBride: Yeah, so, I mean, I--
Lee: Bailey (BACKGROUND VOICE) actually recorded it.
McBride: Oh, I was gonna ask you. So Mom said that your dad came up here during the race massacre. Is that true?
Bailey's Grandfather: Yeah. It was '19 I think.
McBride: Why did he come up here?
Grandfather: Well, he had some cousins livin' up here.
McBride: Yeah. Well, how did he find out that fast down in--
Grandfather: I don't know. (BACKGROUND VOICE) He said he told me--
McBride: (BACKGROUND VOICE) He was like, "Oh, well, my father is a very private man. He didn't ever tell us very much. A lot of what we know we know through, you know, cousins and those who had told us. But he had mentioned, yeah, he was there." He saw houses smoldering.
It was little snippets, little vignettes that he had shared over time, or that the cousins that lived in Tulsa that he had come up to stay with, that they had shared with my grandfather. But never a full account of why he felt compelled to come here that weekend, and to come here at that time. So did he have stories about, like, being there?
McBride: Because you know the--
Grandfather: No, we never did know nothin' about nothin' about that. He never said nothin'.
Lee: In this conversation with your grandfather, did your grandfather express any kind of feeling one way or the other about the fact that his dad was there, and who knows what else?
McBride: So the first time I asked him, it was pretty much indifference. Because it's not something that ever affected his life. But the second time I was in a place where I had come more kind of full circle on how I felt about it, and how I was processing, and so I sort of asked him. I was like, "Do you think your dad was racist?" But, like, do you think that he didn't like Black people?
Grandfather: Who is that?
McBride: No, your dad. (BACKGROUND VOICE)
Grandfather: Oh, no, he didn't. No. I've never seen a Black kid till I was eight year old, nine year old.
McBride: Yeah, (BACKGROUND VOICE) that's what I figured. Like, you guys just had no exposure. But, like, y'all never seemed like you had any, you know, ill will or hate in your heart or anything. So.
Grandfather: No. No.
McBride: And it sounds like he didn't--
Grandfather: We didn't know nothin' (BACKGROUND VOICE) about 'em to hate 'em.
McBride: Yeah. (BACKGROUND VOICE) And I think where I've gotten to, at least right now, is that I can't change what my great grandfather did. I can feel shame about it. I can wish that it wasn't that way. But wishing doesn't get me anywhere. All I can do is to be honest with myself and with others, and to do everything within my power to be a good ancestor so that when my great granddaughter asks these questions about me, she knows that I was on the right side.
This work is white people's work. Healing this city, although it should be informed by and consulted with people of color, white people are the ones with the problem here, not people of color. White people are the ones who burned down Greenwood. And so white people need to do the work to look internally, and to look at our city, and to do the work to fix it. And so I want to be a part of that.
Lee: Bailey McBride, Revenue Marlin Lavanhar, Joy Avery, these folks who agreed to talk with us, they aren't the norm in white Tulsa. There's still tension on how to heal, how to move forward, and whether to quite literally dig up the past. After visiting the excavation site at Oaklawn Cemetery, Kavin Ross, the local activist and historian who you heard from earlier (BACKGROUND VOICE) took me to Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, another place where people believe massacre victims could be buried.
Ross: Off of 91st between Yale Avenue and Harvard Avenue.
Lee: We drove through the main cemetery to a more wooded area. The ground was covered with leaves. It was just so quiet and a little eerie. We saw flocks of birds, even some red ones that many locals say are an embodiment of the ancestors.
Ross: And this area is, as one of the stories of Elwood Lett who would talk about how he was playin' on the other side of this creek. There was a creek within this greenbelt here. And when his family member who was out here pickin' vegetables yelled out to him, "Get out of there. You're over there by the riot dead."
Lee: "Get out of there. You're over there by the riot dead." Stories like this send chills up your spine. It feels like this is sacred ground. But this place Rollin' Oaks, it's a private cemetery. And the city hasn't come to an agreement with them on how to move forward with an excavation. Some say they aren't cooperating. It's been a real point of frustration for Black Tulsa.
Ross: They cleared away a lot of the brush, the thorns, and the sticker bushes, and not only that, to make it accessible. But by doin' so, some of the artifacts are missing from that area. But they did a yeoman's job in tryin' to clean up the area. But still to this day, it's not accessible to the public.
Lee: Now, in terms of survivors--
Archival Recording: Are you-- is he in your shot?
Archival Recording: No.
Archival Recording: There's a lot of people in the shot. Okay, what can I do for you?
Archival Recording: Well, what can I do for you all?
Archival Recording: Sure. Sure.
Lee: At this point, (BACKGROUND VOICE) a white man in a three-piece suit walked over to our crew. He said we didn't have permission to be there, and that he was lookin' out for the families who have people they love buried at Rollin' Oaks, which I completely understand.
It's why there's a search for these mass graves too. But it is open to the public. And we actually tried to get in touch with the cemetery's management for weeks before visiting with no response. After some back and forth, the manager agreed would could stay a little longer. So Kavin and I spent a few more minutes looking out at the untouched ground.
Ross: Some folks don't want nobody to talk about it ever.
Lee: Kavin has spent decades trying to uncover the past. It was tough work 20 years ago. And in 2021, it's still hard.
Ross: Just want to erase it, forget that it never existed. And so you got that as a complication as well. Not everybody is willin' to cooperate. But at least invest the time to investigate.
Lee: As Black people in this country, there's a deep sense of togetherness. In some way or another, each of us have inherited a little piece of the trauma passed down from those who came before us. But we've also inherited strength and resilience. I saw that blend of tragedy and triumph in the people of North Tulsa.
There's so much that remains untold here, buried hurts that would take a lifetime to heal. In some ways, theirs isn't really a story about what happened during those terrible two days 100 years ago. It's much more complicated than that. Theirs is really a story about healing and repairing alongside all of those sacrifices.
Despite the odds, people in this community are addressing the pain and hurt of these past hundred years and trying to build something better for the next generation. Now it hasn't been easy at all. And it probably won't ever be. You know, I'll be honest.
Going to Tulsa and telling these stories, it's been really tough. It's reminded me that we have to stay vigilant, mission-driven, always telling the truth, and shining light in those dark places. Because if not, we, America, will continue to live in darkness. And we just can't keep livin' like that.
We hope you appreciated our coverage of 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre. If you missed last week's episode, be sure to check it out. And a quick shout-out to the NBC News digital documentary unit who we teamed up with to tell these stories from the massacre.
Thank you to Ernesto Guadalupe, Nirma Hasty, Ala’a Ibrahim, and Brock Stoneham for collaborating with us. And I've haven't already, check out our documentary, Blood on Black Wall Street, to learn more about how the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre is continuing to play out in the city today.
We'll drop a link to where you can find it in the show notes. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Aisha Turner. Special thanks to our camera crew Mark Weiss and Matthew Williams.
Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. And congratulations to our sound designer Aaron and his wife Amy who welcomed a new baby into the world this past week. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.