SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It was a story from her great-aunt that stayed with Jeanetta Williams.
Williams, the head of the NAACP, Salt Lake branch grew up in Oklahoma and her great-aunt was a child in 1921.
Back then, a race riot broke out in Greenwood just outside of Tulsa. The district was where African-Americans had established themselves financially in 1921. They owned their own businesses including banks. It was often called the Black Wall Street.
“The black community was thriving, they were doing good,” said Williams. “They had good businesses. They were just trying to make a living.”
But on Memorial Day weekend in 1921, a mob made up of white men, stormed the district of Greenwood.
There was anger after a young black teen entered an elevator tripped and fell onto a white woman. According to news accounts from that time period, word quickly spread that she had been assaulted.
The once-proud Greenwood district was set on fire by the mob. Homes were destroyed and businesses were torched.
Within hours, plumes of dark smoke could be seen throughout the Tulsa area.
“It was just a time to pick up arms by the white folks and they just killed and slaughtered,” recalled Williams.
When the smoke cleared on June 1, 1921, 35-square blocks had been burned to the ground. Black Wall Street never recovered.
The deaths ranged from 300-800 depending on various sources including the state.
“They had people missing and presumed that they were dead,” said Williams. “And what happened was folks put them in mass graves. Just buried them.”
To this day, many of those who died in the 1921 Tulsa massacre remains unknown.
This summer, a commission and the city of Tulsa exhumed several bodies from a mass grave found at a local cemetery. It began the process to identify if they actually died in the race riot.
Last month, the commission awarded a Utah-based forensics laboratory to use the DNA to help identify the bodies.
“We’re very optimistic that we’ll be able to identify these people and bring answers to their families,” said Karra Porter, co-founder of Intermountain Forensics.
Intermountain Forensics is the only non-profit lab in the nation. It will now start to develop profiles from the bodies exhumed from those graves.
“Once we get profiles on these individuals, we’re going to upload those to some public genealogy databases,” said Porter.
Once the profiles are placed on databases like Ged-Match, one can submit their own DNA to see if there’s a relationship to those bodies exhumed.
“It is a step towards justice,” said Williams. “(These families) can give them a proper memorial or even a proper headstone. I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
At stake for families of the dead are possible financial reparations that have never been paid. Oklahoma’s legislature denied those payments.
But there’s a similar effort underway in Congress
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Williams. “Many of these families were financially successful and their descendants were denied the right to have a good life.”