Should a horrible past be exhumed?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

In an extraordinary act to unearth the past, city officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have ordered a search for mass graves. The excavation will come nearly 99 years after a 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (above) left more than 300 black people dead in an area known as Black Wall Street.

Black businessman O.W. Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in Oklahoma and in 1906 developed the vibrant district that was considered one of the most affluent black areas in the U.S. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, an angry white mob attacked, murdering blacks, destroying businesses and burning homes to the ground.

“It was a tragic, infamous moment in Oklahoma and the nation’s history, the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War,” wrote then-Oklahoma state Rep. Don Ross in a 1998 report on the massacre.

The limited excavation in Oaklawn Cemetery, which will begin in April, is the first step in the pursuit of justice for the people who were killed—and their descendants who lost everything in the fires of the massacre, says writer DeNeen Brown, who has been covering the unfolding story. Some say the city of Tulsa is culpable in the massacre because it deputized white citizens, armed them and then stood aside as black people were shot in cold blood, Brown says. Their houses were leveled by turpentine bombs dropped from airplanes, making Tulsa the first U.S. city ever bombed by air.

Plans to dig for mass graves where survivors say bodies were dumped has divided the community. Brown told me that some Tulsa residents believe uncovering mass graves is long overdue in a city haunted by the massacre. Others residents are angry that the city is digging up the past. They argue that no matter how horrific the massacre, Tulsa cannot change its history and should just move on.

The hit HBO series Watchmen re-created the horror in its first episode last year. The show's creator, Damon Lindelof, was enraged after first reading about the massacre in The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“I was 43 or 44, and I wondered how could it be that I’ve never heard about this. Then I read more, and I said Tulsa was the right place to set the show,” Lindelof told the Tulsa World.

The past had been buried long enough.

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