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By Ashley Jones and Deon Osborne
As the traumatic work to uncover and properly exhume the bodies of possible Tulsa Race Massacre victims in mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery continues, with at least one new body being discovered as of Friday, descendants of the original Black Wall Street say they feel obligated to honor the spirits of these unknown victims, along with continuing calls for reparative justice and accountability.
The investigation is being led by the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, forensic teams from Oklahoma University and University of Florida, as well as Cartago, a 3D imaging company that will present models of the graves and findings. Their current process includes exhuming the bodies one by one, and solemnly walking their remains to the lab at the Sexton building for further analysis. The 19 bodies are carried in cremation trays that look like cardboard coffins, draped in black velvet cloths, and the workers and community members pray throughout the entire process.
While the excavation team has previously clarified that it’s possible some of the victims’ remains may be from deaths caused by the Flu Pandemic of 1918 and 1919, the fact that more bodies than expected have already been found, leads the team to cautiously believe more will be found as they move forward.
Descendant J. Kavin Ross
Public Oversight Committee Chair J. Kavin Ross is a massacre descendant. His family owned the Zulu Lounge that once stood in the historic Black Wall Street district.
“This is the most powerful occasion of our lives here in Tulsa,” J. Kavin Ross said in a video detailing the process his team is undergoing.
“This is our story,” he added. “Black, Yellow, Brown, White, this is our story.”
The beginning of reconciliation
Ross asked the community to move towards reconciliation and One Tulsa, but noted that many in the Black community don’t believe in One Tulsa because, according to Kavin Ross, true reconciliation has yet to take place in a city that for decades remained actively silent.
“Maybe because it starts now. Let’s make things happen,” Kavin Ross said.
So far, all of the victims’ remains found have been inside coffins and mostly found at the same depth. But experts have said more research on the styling of the coffins is needed.
It’s about recognizing humanity
Descendant Kristi Williams’ Great Aunt escaped from the Dreamland Theatre during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, and she says that the first day removing the bodies of unknown victims was very emotional.
“I think about these people who didn’t get a chance to escape,” Williams said. “As a person, just out of humanity I owe it to them to get them to a proper burial and let their stories be told. So we need to find out as much as we can about these remains so we can get their stories told and a proper burial.”
Exhuming graves: a traumatic experience for descendants
The process of analyzing the trauma each body went through and trying to identify each victim will be a long process before the proper burials can begin. However, local pastors have come to the site frequently to pray over each body and sing spiritual songs in memorial of their loss.
“We actually carry them like a funeral procession,” Williams said. “They’re very gentle when they come on the remains, they’re committed to doing it right and you can see that they really care about what they’re doing, and it’s definitely heavy work I’m not gonna lie.”
Determined to offer true recognition and reverence to the souls of those lost in the White mob’s raging attack on Greenwood in 1921, Williams felt relief that the truth was finally being revealed.
Holding local officials accountable
“For years, we’ve known that they’ve been here, and it was just folklore and now we know that it’s true, and it feels like you know, I’m more committed to this than ever before,” Williams said.
Williams also stated she was grateful to Mayor G.T. Bynum, who created a space with tents, free wifi, and electricity because the community workers committed to this investigation have other jobs in which they are employed.
Nevertheless, on multiple occasions, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has continued to reject calls for direct reparations to massacre survivors and descendants.
Reaching reconciliation and reparation
“We always are at odds with the mayor because the mayors we had before wouldn’t let us do this,” Williams said.
“So I do thank him for that, but now we gotta see, will we hold these people accountable? I have to hold him accountable to say ‘are we gonna hold these institutions who are responsible accountable? We have data that shows from housing, police, all of that. This shows a Case for Reparations.”
For J Kavin Ross, even though some people “don’t know what reconciliation looks like,” the work being done now represents an example to be replicated by other communities and adds to the necessary calls for reparations in Tulsa. His decades-long efforts to uncover and honor the souls of these remains has finally gained the attention of expert researchers. and historians have lessened the trauma Ross and other descendants endure.
“It’s given me some peace of mind,” Kavin Ross told The Black Wall Street Times. Hoping “cooler heads prevail,” Kavin Ross said now is the time for the work of true reconciliation and restitution to begin.