FGCU digs up answers on Tulsa Massacre that killed hundreds in black community
FORT MYERS, Fla. — A group from Florida Gulf Coast University is on the ground in Tulsa Oklahoma, helping to dig up answers at the site of an American tragedy.
“We’re bridging a gap from the dead to the living,” Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney said, “with the hopes of changing lives.”
A reckoning is happening there – this week marks 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre where hundreds of Black people were killed and a thriving Black community was destroyed.
“By opening up the door and allowing us to finally shed light on this horrible atrocity, I think it’s gonna help generations of people and help us, maybe, hopefully recoup what was lost,” Walsh-Haney said.
She took a small group of FGCU graduate students to the city’s Greenwood District. They’re part of a nationwide team working in Tulsa this month.
“To be part of that and be part of a ground-swell of change that needs to happen in this country by finally documenting one of the worst race massacres in our country is amazing. It takes my breath away,” she said.
It’s her second time in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a once-thriving area known as Black Wall Street. Walsh-Haney was there last fall with University of Florida professor Phoebe Stubblefield as part of a team that found 13 bodies buried in unmarked graves.
“If your ancestor is buried and is not marked anywhere is not documented anywhere, is hidden, how could you possibly know?” graduate student Leslie Urgelles said.
“They should know about the victims that were left there and not really recognized,” fellow graduate student Cahjanae Henfield said. “I just want to find justice for all of the families that didn’t get to have that years ago.”
Walsh-Haney says the team believes the bodies were not placed in the open field ceremoniously.
“In our everyday lives when we visit cemeteries there’s a pattern to how gravestones are laid out and where you expect to find your loved one,” she said.
“Instead, we saw [a] haphazard laying down of caskets in a way that a government who’s trying to hide the victims of a mass tragedy in a public space, what they would do.”
A rumor would eventually cause the deadly attack.
In 1921, a white woman claimed a Black man attacked her in an elevator. The claim sparked a riot. Nearly 200 thriving, black-owned businesses that stood for decades were destroyed by a white mob. Hundreds of black people were killed. In less than a day, all of Black Wall Street was destroyed.
“I would see on social media people coming forward and saying ‘This happened in my community and it’s not talked about in history at all.’ It occurs all across the country, different massacres like this. And we never hear about it,” Urgelles said. “It’s shameful.”
The city of Tulsa wants to recognize the massacre for what it is – one of the biggest displays of racism in our nation’s history.
“It’s kind of… upsetting.” Henfield said. “I feel like they should’ve been started this years ago. But since it’s here now, they just need to work harder to give awareness.”
This team is working to find previously undiscovered bodies 100 years later, and to identify the ones already uncovered.
“They could be your family members, your friends, your coworkers,” Urgelles said. “So I think it’s important to be aware of history, to ensure that the victims are getting justice, and to ensure that we don’t repeat this ever again.”
“It’s my job as a scientist to shed light where there’s darkness,” Walsh-Haney said. “And this whole process sheds light on the history of the United States and how we need to move forward.”
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