Tulsa Massacre Survivors Ask Justice Dept. to Intervene in Search for Graves

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Survivors of the 1921 massacre and descendants of victims said they did not trust city officials to search for the graves of Black residents who were killed by a white mob.

Community members carried a box holding human remains from a dig site to an on-site forensics lab at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Okla., in June.
Credit...Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

Aug. 18, 2021Updated 6:24 p.m. ET

A group of survivors and descendants of victims of the race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., have asked the Justice Department to take over the search for mass graves of Black residents who were killed during the rampage in 1921.

The group, Justice for Greenwood, said it did not trust city officials to lead the search for the graves or to handle any remains that may be found.

“To ensure the deaths of the massacre victims whose remains are found are properly and thoroughly investigated, we are calling on the Department of Justice to act as a neutral, third-party investigator and to take over the search,” the group said in a letter that was signed by the three surviving victims of the massacre, as well as state legislators and community and city leaders.

The Justice Department should investigate and “provide answers and findings that the massacre survivors and their descendants, and the rest of the public, can trust,” they said in the letter, which was dated Friday.

A spokeswoman said the Justice Department had received the letter but declined to comment.

The city has been working with archaeologists and forensic anthropologists to search for and identify the remains.

As many as 300 people died during the rampage, which was led by white looters who set fire to the businesses and homes of Black residents in the Greenwood neighborhood in June 1921. Greenwood, then a booming business district, comprised some 40 blocks of restaurants, hotels and theaters owned and run by Black entrepreneurs. The mob destroyed it in less than 24 hours.

A spokeswoman for the city of Tulsa declined to comment on the letter because members of Justice for Greenwood have a pending lawsuit against the city demanding compensation for the losses that descendants of the victims and survivors endured.

In 2018, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced that the city would conduct a search for bodies, focusing on four sites, including Oaklawn Cemetery, that had been identified as potential locations of mass graves of the victims.

“The only way to move forward in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is by seeking the truth honestly,” Mr. Bynum said in a statement posted on the city’s website. “We are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process.”

The authors of the letter to the Justice Department contended that some of those involved in the search effort, whom they did not name, were the descendants of people who “both encouraged and actively participated in the violence that destroyed Greenwood in 1921 in the first place.”

“The city has an obvious conflict of interest,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, the executive director of Justice for Greenwood. “We do not believe the city has the moral authority or the desire to do the right thing in this situation.”

Mr. Solomon-Simmons, a lawyer, is representing the three survivors and descendants of the victims in the lawsuit.

The massacre followed a chance encounter between two teenagers — Dick Rowland, 19, a Black shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, 17, a white elevator operator. Mr. Rowland entered the elevator on May 31, 1921. A scream was heard from inside, and Mr. Rowland fled.

Accused of sexually assaulting Ms. Page, he was arrested that morning and jailed in the Tulsa County Courthouse. A large group of armed Black people, fearful that Mr. Rowland would be lynched, rushed to the courthouse to ensure his safety.

The charges against Mr. Rowland were later dropped, and the authorities eventually concluded that he had most likely tripped and stepped on Ms. Page’s foot, according to a 2001 report from the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

But by June 1, the day after the arrest, a large mob of white Tulsans had begun setting fire to businesses in Greenwood. People were killed on the street or simply vanished.

No one was ever charged. In the years and decades after the massacre, the city and the Chamber of Commerce tried to cover it up, distorting the narrative to present Black residents as the violent instigators.

In June, Kary Stackelbeck, the state archaeologist, led a team that uncovered more than 30 unmarked graves at Oaklawn Cemetery.

During a news conference that month, she told reporters that there were no dates or any documentation to help identify the bodies.

Nineteen bodies were considered viable enough for a forensic analysis, she said.

During the same news conference, Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist, said that only one of the bodies that had been examined showed signs of trauma — a Black male who was found with a bullet lodged in his shoulder.

She said that the analysis of the bodies was preliminary and that a final report would eventually be presented to the city’s public oversight committee during a public meeting.

Dr. Stubblefield said the process of identifying the bodies or figuring out when and how they died was complicated in large part because there was no information about them.

“It’s a difficult project,” Dr. Stubblefield said, adding that the part of the cemetery where the bodies were found was “shockingly underdocumented.”.

The body of the man who was found with the bullet was well-preserved, she said, but the remains of the other bodies that had been examined were “brittle and falling apart,” making it hard to determine signs of trauma.

The city reburied the bodies after the analysis, infuriating the survivors and the descendants of the victims, Mr. Solomon-Simmons said.

“None of those bodies have been properly identified,” he said. “That’s part of the uproar.”

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Credit...Mike Simons/Tulsa World, via Associated Press

In a letter to the City Council, Mr. Bynum said that the bodies had been “temporarily” reburied as part of a plan that was approved and discussed at public meetings before the exhumation began.

He said the goal was to determine whether any of the remains belonged to the victims of the massacre, a process that could take years, and to find available DNA to connect the remains with descendants.

“We have been clear since we began this process a few years ago that the city of Tulsa is in this for the long haul,” Mr. Bynum said. “When you start searching for victims nearly a century after they were buried, there are not quick and easy answers.”

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