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Friday, July 9, 1999 Published at 18:50 GMT 19:50 UK

World: Americas

Historians search for race riot truth

It is thought to have been America's worst incident of racial violence

By the BBC's Jane Hughes in Tulsa

Under an intense blue sky stretching over the Midwestern American prairies, the gravestones in Tulsa's Oakland cemetery shimmer silently in the midday sun.

[ image: The mobs burned thousands of homes]
The mobs burned thousands of homes
But the quiet of the scene hides what is now believed to be one of the darkest secrets in the history of American race relations.

Up to 300 people are thought to have been buried here, in mass, unmarked graves; victims of a riot which the city has long tried to forget.

For decades, the events of May 1921 were brushed under the carpet by a city desperate to protect its reputation.

Now, nearly 80 years on, historians are trying to uncover the truth about what is thought to have been America's worst ever incident of racial violence.

[ image: Ground Penetrating Radar is being used to search for bodies]
Ground Penetrating Radar is being used to search for bodies
A search for remains is underway using Ground Penetrating Radar. Excavations are expected to begin in the next few months.

It was on 31 May 1921 that trouble broke out.

A black shoeshine man was accused of attacking a white female lift operator, and was locked in the city's courthouse. Within hours, a white lynch mob had gathered and was marching on the black section of the city.

Burning memories

George Munro remembers it as if it was yesterday.

"At five-years-old, I thought the world was on fire," he recalls. He saw a gang of men carrying flaming torches approaching his family's home, and was dragged under the bed by his sisters.

He watched as the men marched past his hiding place.

[ image: George Munro:
George Munro: "I thought the world was on fire"
"These men, they came in and set the curtains on fire, and set everything on fire," he says. As they left, one of them stepped on his hand.

He started to cry out, but his sister clapped a hand over his mouth, muffling his cries and saving his life.

The mobs burned thousands of homes to the ground, reducing black Tulsa to heaps of rubble.

For the last three quarters of a century, Mr Munro, as with almost everyone else involved, has kept his memories to himself.

Jane Hughes: "The wound is being reopened"
Fearful of what the race riot would do to Tulsa's reputation as a booming frontier town, the authorities hushed it up. The official death toll was just 36.

The local papers barely gave it a mention, anxious to let a painful wound heal.

Commission seeks truth

But now the wound is being reopened. A state legislator from Tulsa's black community, Don Ross, has led a drive to confront the ugliest moment in his city's history.

[ image: Tulsa has been desperate to protect its reputation]
Tulsa has been desperate to protect its reputation
He has secured $50,000 to fund the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which is now seeking to uncover the truth about the riots and the number of casualties.

"What is remarkable is that everyday Tulsans are trying to grapple with what was really a holocaust in their midst," says historian Scott Ellsworth.

"I think it's very important that Tulsa is trying to deal with this now."

The commission may consider reparations for the dwindling number of survivors of the riots. But for people like George Munro, it is more important to set the historical record straight.

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