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Tulsa Race Massacre survivors ask Justice Department to intervene in the search for mass graves

1921 Mass Graves Public Oversight Committee Chair J. Kavin Ross watches as remains are reinterred at Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery on July 30, 2021. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World/AP)
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Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and the descendants of victims have asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in the city’s search for mass graves.

Justice for Greenwood, a foundation representing three known massacre survivors, as well as descendants, historians and activists, sent a letter Friday to formally request that the Justice Department open an investigation under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act to determine what happened during the century-old massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre

The request comes weeks after the city reburied remains that were exhumed from a mass grave discovered in a city-owned cemetery. Still undetermined: whether the mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery is connected to the 1921 rampage that left as many as 300 Black people dead and the all-Black neighborhood of Greenwood in ruins.

Tulsa officials reinterred the remains over the objections of massacre survivors, descendants of victims and members of the 1921 Mass Graves Oversight Committee, which voted to delay the reburial of the remains until the city had completed its investigation.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, the lead attorney in a lawsuit filed in 2020 by massacre survivors and descendants demanding that the city “repair the damage” caused by the attack, said Tulsa has a conflict of interest in investigating the massacre.

“There are innumerable reasons why the Department of Justice should intervene in this case,” attorneys wrote in the request letter. “First, the City perpetrated the massacre and then led the cover up of the massacre for 75 years. Over the last 20 years and currently, the City’s official position is they are not responsible for the horrendous loss of life, land, or livelihood that they caused.”

The attorneys questioned whether the city could “be trusted to handle this mass grave search with integrity” and accountability. “The known and suspected mass grave sites are crime scenes," the letter said. "As such, these crime scenes should not be investigated by the very perpetrator(s) of the crime, let alone entities we know have failed to adequately investigate and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.”

Tulsa officials declined to comment on the request for the Justice Department’s intervention, citing pending litigation, city Communications Director Michelle Brooks said.

“The Department has received the request filed by descendants of the Tulsa race massacre and we are reviewing it,” a Justice Department spokeswoman said.

Tulsa just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the massacre, which happened when a White mob descended on the all-Black neighborhood of Greenwood on May 31, 1921, and destroyed it. Thirty-five square blocks were burned and more than 10,000 Black people were left without homes. Massacre eyewitnesses and survivors reported seeing bodies of Black people thrown into mass graves, into the Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making a tally of the fatalities difficult.

No White person was charged in the massacre, and insurance claims filed by Black homeowners and business owners were rejected. For decades, there was silence about what happened.

In 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) reopened the investigation into whether there are mass graves after a Washington Post story detailed unresolved questions from an earlier inquiry, which did not include a search.

In October, 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 died 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 steps carved into the wall of the pit, an indication that it contains perhaps dozens of coffins.

During the excavation, the remains of 19 people were exhumed and taken to an on-site lab near the mass grave. In the lab, scientists examined the remains for signs of trauma that could be connected to the massacre.

In June, forensic scientists and archaeologists announced they had unearthed skeletal remains, including those of a Black man with multiple gunshot wounds to his head and shoulder.

The reburial of those remains last month sparked angry protests. But the city argued it was required to do so 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.

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

The letter requesting the Justice Department intervention was signed by the three known living massacre survivors — Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, Viola Ford Fletcher, 107 and Hughes Van Ellis, 100. It was also signed by city and state officials in Oklahoma, Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, State Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa), and several prominent leaders of human rights and civil rights organizations, including Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative; Angela Rye, CEO of IMPACT Strategies; Damon T. Hewitt, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and Nicole M. Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.

“We are deeply disturbed and alarmed by the possibility that some of the bodies recently found could be those of the same people we saw in the street in the wake of the Massacre, who were senselessly and violently murdered,” the massacre survivors said in a statement.

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