Listen to this article here
GREENWOOD Dist.–Investigators for the 1921 Tulsa Mass Graves Investigation announced the exhumation of a fourth set of remains during the city’s third excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, researchers announced 50 grave shafts have been uncovered since the start of the third exhumation. The cause of death, gender or other markers haven’t yet been identified, and the remains were transferred to an on-site osteology lab for forensic analysis.
The latest round of digging, which began on Sept. 5, marks the third round of exhumations since Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum first launched the 1921 Mass Graves Investigation in 2018.
The difficulty lies in determining whether the bodies discovered are victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a city-sanctioned white mob killed up to 300 Black residents of historic Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street. Over 1,200 homes and hundreds of businesses were also destroyed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society.
Yet some of the remains found by investigators could instead be victims of the Spanish Flu, which ravaged the world from 1918 to 1920.
“There isn’t a single genealogical investigation of this magnitude in the United States that has gotten this far, and yet, we are still in the beginning stages of this process,” Mayor Bynum said in April. “There is a lot more investigative work that is happening, and with the public’s help, we are eager to enter the next phase of this process.”
Adult and child-sized coffin found
State Archaeologist Dr. Kary Stackelbeck gave an update on Friday, explaining that one particular grave shaft may have been used to bury two people at the same time, an adult and child.
“We now know that that actually was a hole that was of sufficient size to accommodate both an adult and child-sized coffin that were placed in that hole,” Dr. Stackelbeck said.
The current exhumation at Oaklawn Cemetery is taking place in the potter’s field, a neglected area where African Americans were buried. None of the 50 grave shafts exhumed had official headstones, but roughly half of them had “makeshift markers,” such as bricks, pottery, or milk glasses, Dr. Stackelbeck explained.
Seeing the makeshift markers on the ground-penetrating radar technology drew investigators to the site.
In total, previous findings have uncovered dozens of remains, 22 of which have been sent to Intermountain Forensic in Salt Lake City, Utah for analysis.
In April, six of those 22 remains sparked national interest when researchers discovered they produced viable genetic genealogy that could be traced to living relatives.
Tulsa mass graves investigation yields DNA evidence
Investigators have tracked the last names associated with the six genetically viable remains to at least seven states: North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Alabama.
The city of Tulsa is asking anyone who believes they may be a relative of a Tulsa Race Massacre victim to fill out a form and submit their DNA.
“Donors have the option to prohibit their information from being shared with other agencies, including law enforcement, and can remove their information at any time,” Intermountain Forensics laboratory director Danny Hellwig told the AP.
Meanwhile, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represents the three living survivors of the 1921 Massacre, has warned potential relatives against submitting their DNA out of a concern it could be used against them.
Justice for the three living survivors
As founder of the Justice for Greenwood foundation and a national civil rights attorney, attorney-Solomon-Simmons is leading the public nuisance lawsuit on behalf of the three last known living survivors.
While Mayor Bynum has been vocal about findings from the Tulsa Mass Graves Investigation, committee members, including descendants of survivors, have been shut out from closed-door discussions and updates.
Highlighted in a documentary called “Oaklawn,” the lack of transparency comes at a time when the city is defending itself against a lawsuit seeking restituion and reparations for teh 102-year-old city-sanctioned racial domestic terrorist attack.
The case for “Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and “Uncle Red” Hughes Van Ellis, 102, continues despite resistance from Tulsa courts.
Tulsa Mass Graves Investigation DNA submission
On July 7, Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the historic reparations case for the three centurions. Undeterred, attorney Solomon-Simmons and his co-counsel filed an appeal at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court has agreed to hear the case.
“If this truly is a nation of laws and a state based on the law, then my clients, the last-known survivors of the massacre, should get the opportunity that no one else who suffered the devastation had the privilege of, Solomon-Simmons stated on the steps of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in August.
To submit your DNA the city of Tulsa for the ongoing 1921 Tulsa Mass Graves Investigation, visit www.Tulsa1921DNA.org. If you’d prefer to submit your DNA to the Justice for Greenwood foundation, visit justiceforgreenwood.org.