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Historian Sheds Light on Tulsa's Deadly 1921 Race Riot

August 10, 1999|From Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. — Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot who were invited to testify before a commission investigating the clash instead listened in silence Monday as a historian detailed the horrors.

Scott Ellsworth, who wrote a book on the riot, now believes it was the worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. At least 200 to 300 people, mostly blacks, are believed to have perished.

As many as 10,000 white men and boys gathered to attack the black community, Ellsworth said. Police officers and the local unit of the National Guard also joined in the burning of 35 blocks of the once-thriving black business district, he said.

It all started when a white mob gathered to lynch a black man who had been accused of attacking a female white elevator operator, who later declined to press charges.

The story stunned 90-year-old Joyce Walker Hill, who heard for the first time the extent of the attack by white mobs that forced her family to flee their home.

"All I knew is that we were in it," said the Kansas City, Kan., woman, who was 11 when whites torched her black neighborhood.

The Tulsa Race Riot Commission invited more than 60 known survivors to share their stories, but the five who came already had videotaped their testimony and chose not to speak.

The panel is trying to get a better picture of what happened when the fighting broke out May 31, 1921, and to determine if reparations should be made.

The panel approved a plan Monday to do limited excavation at a downtown cemetery where archeologists have narrowed a search for mass graves.

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