According to official records, fewer than 40 people died during the Tulsa Race Massacre. But it’s believed white attackers killed as many as 300 people, with bodies dumped into mass graves and no record of what happened to them.
The Tulsa Community Remembrance Coalition and the Equal Justice Initiative have collected soil throughout Greenwood to commemorate massacre victims. The final collection event took place Monday, 100 years to the day after the massacre started.
With a crowd gathered at Standpipe Hill, community historian Kristi Williams started the soil ceremony by asking everyone to be open to the experience they were about to have.
"You are in little Africa, and there’s a fire that still burns in little Africa. Welcome," Williams said.
Six empty jars sat on a platform, surrounded by flowers and candles. Kiara Boone with Equal Justice Initiative said these soil collections, being done through community partnerships nationwide, are small acts of defiance against more than 6,500 documented instances of racist violence, including the Tulsa Race Massacre.
"And although the act of putting this soil in this jar may seem like a simple gesture, there is something really powerful about saying that we are witnesses of what has happened, and we are committing ourselves, our communities and our future generations to never forgetting what has happened in this community," Boone said.
The ceremony was meant to memorialize the unknown victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre — dozens, perhaps hundreds of Black people killed without their names being recorded anywhere. Boone said soil is one of the only tangible reminders of what happened.
"And we know that in the soil, there is the sweat of those who were enslaved. We know that in the soil, there is the blood of those who are victims of racial terror, violence and lynching. We know that in this soil, there are the tears of those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of Jim Crow segregation," Boone said. "But in this soil, there is also hope, there’s also the opportunity for new life and new beginning and commitment."
Chief Egunwale Amusan of the African Ancestral Society told the crowd they were on sacred ground in Greenwood. Monday was Memorial Day in the United States, the holiday to honor fallen soldiers. It was no different at the soil ceremony, 100 years after a white mob began attacking Greenwood.
"On this hill, when I was a child, people said to me, my parents said, 'Do not play on Standpipe Hill.' ... Most people don’t know this history because these are the stories of those who live here. We’re the ones who’ve held the torch. We’re the ones who’ve carried the story and the legacy of those great people who died on Standpipe Hill, defending Greenwood," Amusan said. "This is the part of our history that was completely eliminated from every narrative and every story."
As the ceremony started, jars and hand shovels full of soil were brought to the two living Tulsa Race Massacre survivors in attendance: 107-year-old Viola "Mother" Fletcher and her 100-year-old brother, Hughes Van Ellis. As people were invited to help fill the jars, Amusan talked about the history of Standpipe Hill.
"One of the people we like to recognize on this hill, who took possession of this hill, who has literally been written out of history was Peg Leg Taylor. Otis G. Clark talked about how he helped Peg Leg Taylor fill magazines as he took a machine gun to the top of this hill and defended Greenwood and told them to get the women and children out of Greenwood and go to safety, find a place to be because it is going to be worse than we can imagine," Amusan said. "And we give thanks for people like Pegleg Taylor, who took possession of this hill and fought with courage, was deliberate in saving lives, the lives of innocent people."
Once the jars were full, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Hank Johnson delivered remarks. So did the commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, Adjutant Gen. Michael Thompson.
The ceremony ended with a request for a minister in the crowd to give a closing prayer. The man who volunteered noted his grandfather’s garden used to sit across the street, where OSU-Tulsa now stands.
It started to rain after everyone said "amen," but the African Ancestral Society started drumming, and people danced as they left the sacred ground of Standpipe Hill.