Whether there are more bodies beneath the asphalt or not, the fenced-off graves felt like the scene of a crime against humanity — and the highway a part of the coverup.
The whole world’s attention was on Tulsa in May for the centennial commemoration of the 1921 attack on Black homes and businesses by a White mob. A museum was built. The cameras rolled in. Pledges for justice, plans for investment and demands for reparations were made.
And then the cameras went home.
But the story is far from over. Tulsa will serve as a crucial test case in the treatment of Black bodies and their places of burial in America. The excavation of the bones of Tulsa’s past is posing thorny but vital questions. Can a city that carried out a massacre and its coverup be trusted to deliver dignity and justice to Black Tulsans?
Damario Solomon-Simmons, the lawyer for three known living survivors of the massacre, doesn’t trust the city to be transparent about the process. On Monday, he filed an open records request asking that it make all records available to the public. He also wants an independent third party to come in to do the investigation. “This is a crime scene,” Solomon-Simmons said. “In what other scenario is the criminal in charge of investigating the crime?”
Those concerns are valid, and time will tell, but one key figure working on the project inspires confidence. Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, whose parents were from Tulsa, has gained a lot of attention as a Black woman helping to lead the city’s investigation into the remains. “I find skeletons fascinating,” the University of Florida professor told me. She prefers to let the bones tell the story of what happened to these people.
Stubblefield gives the city and Mayor G.T. Bynum credit for being willing to break ground. The remains that have been found were indeed women and children, which tell a different story of Black Tulsa than she originally expected. These were not bodies dumped haphazardly but were organized, with coffins laid side by side. The massacre was not the only deadly event to hit Oklahoma in that time period — the state was also affected by the 1918 flu pandemic. But Stubblefield’s aim is not to treat the remains of Tulsa’s Black community as scientific specimens to be studied, but as people — whose humanity demands they be returned to the historical record.
Across the country, Black people were historically often not permitted to bury their dead in White cemeteries. It was only last year that legislation was passed to give increased federal protection to Black burial grounds, which for so long were neglected and undocumented. The work in Tulsa will be delicate and time-consuming. There are thought to be several more sites. A proper investigation will require combing genealogical records and trying to find any living relatives.
It all makes for a heart-wrenching process for those in Tulsa’s Black community who lost family members in that time and have no idea where their forebears’ remains lie. Private landowners may be resistant to having their land dug up. And when Bynum’s term is up in 2024, there is no guarantee the next mayor will have the political will to continue the work.
And those thorny questions: Even if massacre victims were to be found, is it justice when the very city that has custody of the remains is the same one that refuses to compensate living survivors and the descendants of survivors for their losses? Would it be justice for profits from tourism of Black gravesites to go to the city of Tulsa and not the Black community? Stubblefield’s report is not due until early next year. But the racial dynamics and Black mistrust of White institutions in Tulsa make it no ordinary crime scene.
“I have never worked in what feels like a humanitarian conflict,” she told me.
The remains found at Oaklawn will be reburied on July 30 with a ceremony. It does not amount to full justice, but it marks at least one small step toward giving Black Tulsans of the past the historical recognition they deserve.