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Nearly three years ago, the city of Tulsa launched an investigation into mass graves possibly belonging to 1921 Race Massacre victims. Now, researchers have zeroed in on a possible match.
On Tuesday, researchers released their findings to the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, following the excavation of 19 bodies from Oaklawn Cemetery in June 2021. In their findings, researchers found that only one body met all of the criteria for a Massacre victim. They called for more excavations of potential mass grave sites around Tulsa.
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield said the body of a young man matched all the criteria for a Massacre victim.
“He was a young man in his early 20s. He had a minimum of three gunshot wounds … that contributed to his death,” Phoebe Stubblefield told the committee, the Tulsa World reported.
She added that, while other bodies match some of the criteria as well, only the young man with three bullet wounds showed obvious signs of trauma.
Mass Graves investigation enters new phase
Stubblefield called for more excavations around the city, a recommendation supported by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.
“Based on that recommendation, we will work toward the next steps of this investigation – including the continued excavation of Oaklawn Cemetery and further analysis of sites at Newblock Park and an area west of downtown known by researchers as ‘The Canes,’” Bynum wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
After decades of mayors denying descendants the opportunity to seek closure for their murdered ancestors, Bynum gained support from the Greenwood community during his first term after he promised to launch the investigation.
Bynum’s flip-flopping on police accountability has soured relations with the Black community. Yet, his continued support for following through on the investigation hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In June, Bynum faced criticism when his administration moved to rebury the bodies that were excavated during the search before community members had properly identified remains or contacted next of kin.
“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!” Kristi Williams posted last summer.
Tulsa Race Massacre descendants tired of waiting for justice
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 Theater during the racist, city-sanctioned attack on the community in 1921. While she thanked the mayor for doing what no previous mayor had done, she lambasted the rush to rebury.
“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 added.
Meanwhile, Public Oversight Committee Chair J. Kavin Ross, a massacre descendant whose family owned the Zulu Lounge that once stood in the historic Black Wall Street district, called for reconciliation and restitution at the time.
His decades-long efforts to uncover and honor the souls of these remains has finally gained the attention of expert researchers and historians. The recognition has 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.”
DNA sent to Utah lab for testing
Ultimately, the bodies were reburied in order to wait for the DNA analysis. On Tuesday, researchers confirmed the DNA samples were on their way to Utah Cold Case Coalition Intermountain Forensics for analysis.
“We’ve cleared our plate to be ready for these samples, and we will start working on them as soon as they come in the door,” the firm’s Danny Hellwig said, according to the Tulsa World.
Researchers expect the analysis to take several months.
Ultimately, if confirmed as a Tulsa Race Massacre victim, the finding would add weight to demands for direct reparations to survivors and descendants of the city-endorsed destruction of life and property.
“My mother peeked out and she saw them, the truckloads of Black people, and she saw them dump them into a common grave at the cemetery,” Carolyn Prewitt, an elderly White woman, tearfully said in 2019 at the city’s first public meeting on mass graves.