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Public Oversight Committee Discusses Exhumation Options In Race Massacre Graves Investigation

City of Tulsa
A team excavates a site in Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery in July of 2020.

The committee overseeing the investigation searching for mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre met virtually Thursday to discuss their options regarding potential exhumation of remains found in Oaklawn Cemetery last year.

In a presentation to committee members, Tulsa Deputy Mayor Amy Brown said that to proceed with an exhumation, the city would need to receive approval from the Oklahoma State Department of Health on a plan for reinterment of any human remains.

As of now, Brown said, since the identities of the bodies discovered last year are unknown, the city can serve as next-of-kin to file for disinterment and reinterment, and the likely quickest route would be a proposal to exhume and then reinter remains in Oaklawn Cemetery.

Some on the committee expressed opposition to that idea.

"In my opinion, there's no reason for them to continue to stay in Oaklawn if we do find that they are the ones that were killed during the race massacre," said the Rev. Dr. Robert A. Turner of Historic Vernon AME Church, who floated the idea of using church land.

"I know we're trying to get them, to exhume them as soon as possible, but if it's over our head that before you can exhume them you have to have a place already laid out for them where to go, it feels as though it's rush-rush," said committee member Kavin Ross.

"A number of folks had a number of places where they feel that they should go," Ross said.

Brown said any different reinterment site would need to be a proper cemetery according to state law.

"I think that is a lengthier process. You actually file a request, that request is reviewed, and then you have to wait for the Oklahoma State Department of Health to grant you a permit. And we're not able to obtain an estimate on how long that would take, so if we went that route we would sort of be opening ourselves up to -- we wouldn't be able to choose when we proceed, we'd have to wait for the state to tell us when we could proceed," Brown said.

"As far as if someone has private property that they would want to figure out whether or not it could become a cemetery, my understanding is that they would probably need a few weeks to do that investigation" and look into legality, zoning, and certification, noting the city could not provide legal advice in that matter.

Brown said the city is looking to add archaeologists to the investigation who would be available this summer, and any delays may result in work being pushed back a full calendar year to the summer of 2022.

Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist co-leading the physical investigation, said another consideration is that, once exhumed, DNA analyses will be performed, and if any descendants are identified, they then assume the right to determine where their ancestor is reinterred.

"So whatever plan we have going forward needs to respect that we will identify next-of-kin, and they may say, 'Yes, I want them to stay in Oaklawn,'" Stubblefield said. 

"Once we identify next-of-kin, we are incorporating the interest of living people" who are descendants, not just the city or committee, Stubblefield said.

Committee member Chief Egunwale Amusan expressed a strong preference for remains, if found to belong to massacre victims, not to be reinterred in Oaklawn.

"We know Tate Brady is also buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. We also know that he participated in the massacre. Why would we even consider placing these people -- it's like placing the murderer next to the victim," Amusan said.

"I can't even regurgitate my thoughts thinking about how disgusting that sounds. We're only feet from Tate Brady's gravesite. A Klansman. That just does not make sense to me," Amusan said.

Stubblefield said she understood the concern, but there are still legal complications.

"If the very first casket we dig up is a Black male who's been shot and burned, or just shot, and I say, 'Hey, traumatic, and associated with a traumatic event, and his casket is of a simple design, he's close enough to be associated circumstantially' -- his DNA, if it connects us to his third cousin, that third cousin gets to say, 'Oh yeah, I want him reinterred in Oaklawn,'" Stubblefield said.

"And we have to accept that, no matter how appalling it may be. We have to accept it. That's what I'm saying. If the third cousin says, 'Oh no, no, no, not Oaklawn, nowhere near there,' we have to accept that, too," Stubblefield.

Amusan said he has a relative who went missing after the massacre.

"She could be in that location. If that happens to be and I'm one of those people, I'm saying to you today I don't want my ancestors buried in that cemetery," Amusan said. "And I hope that she's not in that pit, but if she is, I'm making it clear today I don't want her buried there."

Committee chair Brenda Alford was absent from the meeting, and no decision was reached. Brown suggested members of the committee convene before the next meeting in February to discuss the matter further, which several members agreed to.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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