Government

Excavating Oaklawn: A Conversation with Mayor GT Bynum

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Mayor GT Bynum, Tulsa, OK (photo: The Frontier)

By: Nate Morris, senior editor

Two months ago, at a small community meeting in the fellowship hall at Morning Star Baptist church, Mayor GT Bynum made an unexpected announcement that would make headlines across the country.

As the meeting was drawing to a close, the mayor was asked by Dr. Turner, pastor at Vernon AME Church, whether or not he would push to excavation of suspected mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery and throughout the city of Tulsa thought to contain the remains of victims from the 1921 race massacre.

Mayor Bynum did not obfuscate or mince words, “yes”, he said.

“I’m a big believer that if [mass graves] were there, then the families of the folks that were in those graves deserve to know where they are.  The citizens of Tulsa deserve to know what happened and if there are people in there… their presence deserves to be known.”

Three weeks after that announcement, the Black Wall Street Times sat down with the mayor in his office in city hall.

A few minutes into the conversation, he joked about the “fateful town hall” meeting where he discussed his plans with community members, forgetting that there was a Black Wall Street Times reporter in the room.

“I usually like to have everything organized before we announce it,” mayor Bynum said, “I shot my mouth off in that meeting and it took off!”

For Bynum, pursuing the potential of excavation was not a spur of the moment decision.  He recalled a video by journalist Leroy Chapman he saw years prior when he was serving as a city counselor.

“In his video, he was standing in Oaklawn saying ‘there may be mass graves here’ and I thought ‘how on earth have we not done anything?’”

From there, then City Councilor Bynum collaborated with former City Councilor Henderson to determine what next steps to take.

‘We called Bob Brooks, the state archeologist, compiled information and turned it over to the previous administration.” 

Because the sites were city property and the authority to direct city employees rested with the mayor (Dewey Bartlett at the time), then councilors Bynum and Henderson raised the request to Mayor Bartlett’s office.

“Nothing ever happened,” said Bynum, “and I thought, ‘if I ever become mayor, this is something we are going to do.”

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Oaklawn Cemetery (photo: Washington Post)

The notion that such history could remain hidden in a major American city startled Bynum, a self-proclaimed history nerd who stated that he didn’t even learn about the massacre until 2001.

“You think that history is only erased in authoritarian regimes in foreign countries,” said Bynum, “but it was almost erased here.”

Bynum stated in the interview that his administration hopes to have a plan in place by the end of 2018 in order to begin moving forward with the technical pieces of the conversation and work.  When asked how he is preparing the city to reconcile with our history in the event that mass graves are uncovered, the mayor discussed five sequential steps:

  1. Identifying if there is a likely site where a mass grave was dug.
  2. Utilizing the latest technology to identify if there are bodies buried on the site.
  3. Identifying the cause of death (the mayor noted that a massive flu epidemic hit the city in a similar timeframe)
  4. DNA matching – since many families fled as refugees, there’s “almost a certainty that we will have remains and not know who they are. At a more basic level, we don’t want to find something and then start discussing what we do from there,” the mayor said,” we want to have a plan in place.”
  5. If a mass grave is discovered, ensuring that it is memorialized properly.

The significance and potential consequences of uncovering a mass grave would clearly extend far beyond the Greenwood community and force the entire city, and truly the entire nation, into a moment of deeper reckoning with it’s racist and sordid past.

“When 2021 [the centennial of the massacre] comes around,” Bynum said, “it isn’t just something that we can recognize in North Tulsa.  It has to be recognized and commemorated in all parts of our city.”

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Greenwood neighborhood burns during 1921 race massacre (photo: Smithsonian Magazine)

Apart from the centennial commemoration lie deep-seeded inequities that have rooted themselves in Tulsa as a result of the massacre. With the release of the first annual Equality Indicators report, the city has just begun to grapple with the realities of gross gaps in equality between its white citizens and Black citizens when it comes to life expectancy, education outcomes, home ownership, mental health, employment, negative interaction with law enforcement and more.

In the time since our interview with the mayor, the city has paused movement on a controversial truancy ordinance which many argued would likely target students of color and has removed the name of Tate Brady, the mastermind behind the Tulsa massacre, from street signs within city limits. Both of these have been identified by some in the community as small but necessary steps toward progress.

On the contrary, the city has also approved a request to pay up to $50,000 in legal feed for Betty Shelby, the former TPD officer who stood trial for manslaughter in the killing of unarmed Terence Crutcher in September of 2016.  The case, which has prompted sustained calls for immediate policing and governmental reforms over the last two years, still lingers over city politics and has been viewed as a clear indicator of the progress that has yet to be made.

When asked what he believes needs to change in Tulsa, Bynum pointed to the city’s almost unparalleled segregation.

“I’ve had friends who worked throughout the world and they say that Tulsa is the most segregated place they’d been to,” said the mayor.

“When I was growing up here, it was just how things were,” he continued, “but when I went away to college in Philly and lived in DC, coming back home… it’s bizarre that we have theses defined parts of town where different racial groups lived.”

He said that the original conversations around renaming “Brady Street” nearly six years ago helped him realize “how feeble we were at starting conversations about race” in our city.

Bynum is hopeful that these conversations about race will continue to take place in our city in an open and honest fashion, citing the change in willingness to have an open dialogue around the race massacre from five years ago to now.

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A young child carries the body of his sibling during the 1921 race massacre (photo: San Francisco Bay View)

While the overwhelming response to the decision to consider excavation has been positive, there are those who push back against the notion, citing cost to taxpayers, disturbing existing grave sites, etc.

“This is a murder investigation,” the mayor says in response, “a city has a very basic compact with its citizens: if someone murders you, we will do whatever we can to find out what happened to you and to bring closure to your family and loved ones…. There may very well be a whole population of people who haven’t been given that basic right.”


20621103_10156585096989129_7583201440508056449_nNate Morris is the senior editor of the Black Wall Street Times.  Nate was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.  He received his Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015.  Nate is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area.  He is an advocate for educational equity as well as racial and social justice throughout Tulsa and the nation as a whole.

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