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Descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre victims protest reburial of mass grave remains

Tulsa Race Massacre descendant Heather Nash, left, yells at Brenda Alford, 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee member, and forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield as remains from a mass grave are reburied at Oaklawn Cemetery on Friday. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World/AP)
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The bodies of 19 people exhumed from a mass grave that may be connected to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre were reinterred Friday, despite objections from some descendants.

The reburial at the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery sparked an angry protest from some members of the Tulsa Mass Graves Public Oversight Committee, which is charged with overseeing the search for mass graves connected to one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history.

The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre

The committee voted last week to delay reburial until the city delivers its report on the mass grave, where the skeletal remains of a Black man with multiple gunshot wounds to his head and shoulder were among those discovered in June.

But the city ignored the vote, said Chief Egunwale Amusan, a committee member and massacre victim descendant, who accused officials of “a coverup.”

On Friday, descendants filed a motion requesting a judge grant a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from reburying the remains. By then, though, the remains were already being reinterred.

Michelle Brooks, a spokeswoman for Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R), said the city was required to rebury the remains to meet permit requirements obtained before the June excavation began. The permit required the city to reinter the remains after the “on-site forensic analysis, documentation and DNA sampling were complete,” Brooks said.

Tulsa also had to “abide by the permit requirements that were filed with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, requiring the remains to be temporarily interred at Oaklawn Cemetery,” Brooks said.

Scientists are expected to report their findings from the excavation this fall, when they will make recommendations for the next steps in the investigation.

Brooks said further analysis will determine whether the remains belong to massacre victims.

“If they are, then we will want to try to match DNA with descendants and let descendants decide where they want them to be buried,” she said. “If they can’t be identified, we would work to establish a permanent memorial.”

That explanation did not satisfy protesters, who gathered outside the fence at Oaklawn on Friday. Some shouted at scientists and city officials to stop the reburial.

Phoebe Stubblefield, the lead forensic anthropologist, tried to explain that the process was not complete.

“We are not done yet,” Stubblefield, an anthropologist from the University of Florida, told the crowd. “And we have not stopped.”

Tensions erupt in Tulsa as city commemorates 1921 race massacre

Tulsa just marked the 100th anniversary of the rampage by a White mob, which historians believe left as many as 300 Black people dead and destroyed the all-Black neighborhood of Greenwood.

The remains of possible victims were discovered in a section of the cemetery scientists called the “Original 18” site. It is located near the graves of Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard. The tombstones of Everett and Lockard, which say they were killed on June 1, 1921, are the only known marked graves of massacre victims in the cemetery.

In July, scientists announced they discovered as many as 35 coffins in the unmarked mass grave, which also included rugged steps carved into its wall of the pit.

During the excavation, the remains of 19 people were exhumed and taken to a lab not far from the mass grave. In the lab, scientists examined the remains searching for any signs of trauma that might connect them to the massacre.

The massacre began May 31, 1921, after a Black teenager who was working as a shoe shiner in downtown Tulsa was accused of assaulting a White girl in an elevator. A White mob descended on Greenwood, a Black community so affluent it was called “Black Wall Street.”

Thirty-five square blocks were torched, and 10,000 were left homeless. Massacre survivors reported seeing bodies tossed into mass graves, into the muddy Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making a tally of the fatalities difficult.

No White person was ever arrested for the violence, and insurance claims filed by homeowners and business owners were rejected. For decades, there was silence about what happened.

In 2018, Bynum reopened a city investigation of potential mass graves after a Washington Post story detailed unresolved questions from an earlier investigation, which did not include a search for mass graves.

Bynum called the process a murder investigation and said the city is obligated to find out what happened in 1921.

Several community members said they were baffled by the timing of the reburial, including Kristi Williams, a descendant of massacre victims.

“I’m deeply disturbed that we voted to postpone the burial,” she said, “and the mayor decided to rebury them anyway.”

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