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Weeks after discovering 19 bodies in a city-owned mass grave, Tulsa rushed a private reburial ceremony on Friday despite opposition from members of the city’s own oversight committee and descendants of survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
With the nation’s eyes no longer on Tulsa, G.T. Bynum’s administration appears less inclined to listen to demands from those most impacted by the 100-year-old crime. Some residents say the city has “remade a mass grave” and “retraumatized” community members.
Descendants, oversight committee members opposed to rushed reburial
Kristi Williams is a member of the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee and a descendant of Massacre survivors. Her great aunt escaped Greenwood’s famous Dreamland Theatre during the racist, city-sanctioned attack on the community in 1921.
Ahead of the city’s planned reburial, slated for 9 a.m. on Friday, Williams voiced her opposition to the rushed decision on Facebook.
City failed to “properly identify” remains or notify community
“I will not be present today for the reburial ceremony at Oaklawn Cemetery this morning as well as some of my fellow OVERSIGHT committee members,” Williams posted.
She highlighted three key reasons the city should’ve waited and cited a meeting on Tuesday in which members of the committee “advised and voted to postpone” the reburial.
“1. We have not properly identified those remains and family/next of kin has not been contacted yet. That should be done before remains are reburied. 2. The FBI has not been called when we found the body with the bullet and trauma identified to its skeletal structure. 3. We were not given adequate time to create programming for a reburial ceremony. Why would we, when the investigation has not been completed, and why is there a rush to rebury them?” Williams posted.
Not only did the city refuse to adhere to the oversight committee’s vote to postpone, it also didn’t alert media or hold any type of video press conference like it has done for every previous mass grave investigation event.
Despite publicly supporting the voices of descendants during the 100-Year Centennial of the Massacre, when thousands traveled to Tulsa and national media were running stories daily on the subject, the City has refused to heed the calls to wait from leaders of the Greenwood community.
“Yesterday we were notified that the City of Tulsa will rebury the remains with or without a ceremony tomorrow. It didn’t matter that we VOTED and ADVISED to postpone this reburial. This is UNACCEPTABLE AND DECEPTIVE!” Williams added.
Greenwood community protests rushed reburial
Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, a nationally recognized community leader and descendant of Massacre survivors, went live on Facebook as she stood outside the cemetery, not allowed to enter.
“They are covering up the remains of the alleged victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The 1921 Mass Graves Oversight Committee, which is made up of descendants and community members, had a meeting this past Tuesday with the researchers and the archaeologists asking them to postpone…because the investigation is not complete,” Dr. Crutcher said.
“And they were waiting on some feedback from that meeting, from the city representatives and the researchers. And here we are today. No feedback. The oversight committee’s concerns were ignored and they came and did their own ceremony and said they’re gonna move forward re-interning without the community. The community didn’t’ know, and we all rushed up here so we could at least show our respects.”
At the beginning of the investigation, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said the issue would be treated like a “criminal investigation.”
Beginning with the mayor’s 2018 announcement of the investigation, the City has received international recognition for undergoing the process of identifying four possible mass grave sites around the city. Using ground-penetrating radar, investigators were able to determine Oaklawn Cemetery as a promising location for massacre victims. While investigators weren’t able to find any human remains in 2020, earlier this year nearly two dozen were found.
Community retraumatized by city’s actions
According to Tulsa’s own city website, “If the City finds mass graves that can be directly associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the City of Tulsa with the help of the Public Oversight Committee, must determine next steps as it relates to storing remains, DNA testing and genealogical research, and commemorating the gravesites and honoring the remains.”
Yet, instead of allowing time for family members of the newly unidentified 19 souls, (35 in total over the course of the investigation) to connect with their ancestor, instead of allowing outside agencies to come in to do further analysis, and instead of listening to descendants who asked the city to wait for them to perform their own well-planned spiritual ceremony, the City of Tulsa has chosen to move quickly to rebury the bodies it took 100 years to uncover.
Furthermore, sources confirmed with The Black Wall Street Times that the scientists themselves didn’t all agree with going forward with reburial at this time. To add insult to injury, the minister praying over the remains was a well-meaning White man chosen by the City rather than a Black minister from the Greenwood community.
Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa), another descendant of Massacre survivors, blasted G.T. Bynum’s administration in a Facebook post accusing the city of committing a cover-up as the city reburied remains of suspected 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims in a shallow grave.
“What of the DNA testing and process to find potential descendants that I have asked about for years? Oh, I took the picture when I saw a drone had been ordered in on Thursday to capture pictures of the placement of casket pods that the city did not inform the Public Oversight Committee would still be occurring. And yes, I was told that the City did not want Public Oversight Members to capture pictures,” Rep Goodwin posted.
Mayor Bynum obliterates community trust
As residents shared their disgust with the decision on Facebook, District 4 Councilor Kara Joy McKee, who represents the area Oaklawn Cemetery resides, responded to a man saying even city councilors didn’t know about the mayor’s decision until after it began to spread on social media.
“Just your mayor. The council found out when y’all did. It is in MY district and [District 1 Councilor] Hall-Harper was among the group who recommended that this not be done this week. We are mad and I have asked for answers,” Councilor McKee said.
“Every step of the way we have to show our respect for these victims. We have to. And the goal is to find a permanent location. We hope we can get these remains back to the Historic Greenwood District. But we pray that this investigation will continue and it wont stop because the Centennial has come and gone. We need better communication. We need better transparency to make sure that this never happens again. We’ve been waiting 100 years for repair, respect and restitution. The community at large feels that this is blatant disrespect,” Dr. Crutcher said.
Meanwhile, members of the community, mostly African American, were forced to stand outside the gated cemetery protesting the decision as city workers, mostly White, continued covering up the trenches with dirt.
We can only imagine the heartbreak and frustration descendants must feel. We cannot know your grief, but we at the DNA Doe Project certainly feel your frustration. We have been pleading with the city not to rebury the remains until attempts at identification could be made, as was promised. Our non-profit humanitarian organization has been standing by offering our services for a full year now. We would handle the DNA extraction, sequencing and genetic genealogy at no cost to the city. We’ve been waiting since May for the promised RFP so we can submit our zero-cost bid through the proper channels. However, our offers have been ignored, even our offer to explain the process to the team so the best informed choice of vendor could be made. It is simply astounding that these victims have been reburied without knowing whether sufficient DNA can be obtained from what was saved. We feel there would be a fair chance at identification, especially if relatives, no matter how distant, could be tested, too. Which we have been offering to do for free as well. However, the prospects have now gotten a lot harder with reburial.
There is no organization in the world that matches DNA Doe project’s record for the number of identifications made of unknown remains (64 as of two days ago), or which has worked with more labs specializing in the techniques needed for bones this old. We stand with the community of Greenwood in our fervent hope that names might be returned to these victims and that families might finally get some answers. We cannot promise success, but no one can give them a better chance than we can. The sooner we start, the greater the possibility we have of finding those relatives still living.
DNA Doe Project, Inc
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