By Andrew Cohen
Americans associate massacres and mass graves with faraway places, including many where Eric Stover has investigated war crimes and human rights atrocities for decades. That’s why co-producing a PBS documentary about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre hit home for Stover, the longtime faculty director of Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center.
“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” which airs May 31 at 9 p.m., commemorates the centennial of what some regard as the most egregious violence against Black people in the United States. Over three days, a white mob pillaged the Greenwood section of Tulsa — a thriving, self-sufficient area known as Black Wall Street — burning down more than 37 blocks of businesses and homes, leaving more than 8,000 people homeless, and killing between 39 and 300 residents.
Stover noted that the local police helped arm the white mob and even deputized some of its members. Those who did not have weapons broke into local pawn shops, hardware stores, and sporting goods stores and stole weapons. Many Black residents were held in internment camps and only allowed to leave if their white employer came to release them.
“The main theme we’re trying to bring out in our documentary is that you have to live with history, face it, and understand that violence is passed down from generation to generation,” Stover said during a recent Berkeley Conversations panel event on the massacre’s centennial.
After the devastation, Stover explained, officials set about erasing it from the city’s historical records. The dead were buried in unmarked graves. And no white person was ever implicated for the killings or destruction.
With the support of Human Rights Center Associate Director Andrea Lampros, students in the center’s Investigations Lab fact-checked the film at the request of PBS.
Despite the massive scope of death and devastation, the New York Times reported that “City officials cleansed the history books so thoroughly that when Nancy Feldman, a lawyer from Illinois, started teaching her students at the University of Tulsa about the massacre in the late 1940s, they didn’t believe her.”
“After the massacre, Tulsa and Oklahoma fell into a hushed silence,” Stover said. “For the privileged whites, it was simply ‘We need to keep this quiet because we’re a prosperous oil capital.’ And in the Black community, many feared talking about it and passing on the pain to their children. So a hushed history descended.”
A renewed partnership
In part through his work with the Human Rights Center, Stover has led forensic investigations of mass graves in Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Iraq, and Rwanda. In 2018, director Jonathan Silvers — whose many documentaries on social justice issues include “Dead Reckoning,” a three-part PBS series on the elusive pursuit of justice after wartime atrocities that he co-produced with Stover — called to gauge his interest in a project involving similar work on home soil.
Stover and Silvers approached DeNeen Brown, an award-winning Washington Post reporter who had spent part of her childhood in Oklahoma. While in Tulsa visiting her father (a pastor who built his own church there) in 2018, she visited areas where the massacre occurred and saw sidewalk plaques where Black businesses and homes had been destroyed.
Encouraged by her editors, Brown returned to Tulsa to conduct more research. She learned that no governmental investigation of the massacre had taken place until the late 1990s — and how that investigation was prematurely shut down.
In 1997, Oklahoma established a commission, led in part by forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who lived in the state and had worked with Stover on numerous war crimes investigations worldwide. Partway through the Tulsa investigation looking for graves, Snow wanted to begin excavating potential sites. “But it didn’t happen, much to his chagrin,” Stover said.
In September 2018 the Post published Brown’s front-page story describing the massacre. The next day, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum reopened the investigation and established the 1921 Race Massacre Burial Sites Oversight Committee.
“To Tulsa’s credit and the mayor’s credit, this new commission is lifting the silence,” said Stover, who went to Oklahoma and interviewed activists, anthropologists, and others striving to find mass graves and publicize what happened. “They’re facing what happened in the past, but also connecting it to the present.”
Investigators make progress
Among the numerous scientists involved are prominent Black forensic anthropologists Phoebe Stubblefield and Lesley Rankin-Hill, who have helped uncover Black burial grounds of freed slaves from the late 1800s.
“In Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery they’ve found one site which they believe may have up to 18 to 20 bodies,” Stover said. “They stopped the excavation last October due to the weather, and are scheduled to begin again in June. The danger is that some of those remains could disintegrate when taken out of the ground.”
Investigators hope to determine the manner and cause of death in as many instances as possible, potentially using DNA to identify victims.
“In my experience, if you can identify someone and tell that person’s story it will send a powerful message to the Tulsa community itself,” Stover said. “Simply remembering that person will ensure that history is not being erased. If the site currently under excavation turns out to contain the remains of victims, the city could construct a memorial so people — particularly young people — can visit and learn about the history of the massacre so that it is never forgotten again.”
The latest of Stover’s 10 books, co-edited with Henry Erlich and Thomas J. White, Silent Witness: Forensic DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Humanitarian Disasters, tracks the scientific advances of DNA analysis and its impact on criminal and social justice. While the ability to use DNA in Tulsa remains to be seen, Stover views the persistent efforts to publicize what happened there as crucial.
“We tell the story of Black community activists in Tulsa and what they’re doing to commemorate those who died and lost so much,” he said. “This film is a tribute to what they’ve done and how hard they’ve worked together for decades to lift this hushed history out of the ashes and to obtain justice.”