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Exhumation Underway In Race Massacre Graves Search; Mayor Calls Reparations Issue 'Complex'

City of Tulsa
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (left) and state archaeologist of Oklahoma Dr. Kary Stackelbeck in Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 22, 2020, during a test excavation which uncovered a mass grave of possible 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims.

On the 100th anniversary of the second day of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, with the president of the United States in town to commemorate the racist attack and meet with living survivors, the city of Tulsa on Tuesday began the process of exhuming remains discovered in a mass grave in the search for massacre victims.

"Work was done today utilizing a track hoe to remove the overburden (soil placed over the graves from the test excavation)," the city said in a news release. "It is believed remains are located anywhere from 3-5 feet below the overburden, and crews are working to remove a few inches of soil at a time to uncover those remains so further analysis can be conducted."

The effort will be a "multi-week campaign," said Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist helping to lead the excavation, at a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the Tulsa Fire Museum adjacent to Oaklawn Cemetery.

"We're in the remaking history process right now," Stubblefield said.

The grave was discovered in October but left in place while an exhumation plan was developed. The remains are likely to belong to massacre victims, researchers and historians say, but a full exhumation is needed to confirm that.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a longtime champion of the search for victims, said he hoped the process would help the healing process for victims' families.

"The ideal outcome for us is that we're able to identify cause of death and, really, the most ideal outcome is that we can recover DNA from remains and, if these are in fact victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, we can finally, a century too late but finally, bring some closure to these families and let them know where the remains of their loved ones -- where those remains are," Bynum said. 

Asked whether any descendants identified via DNA should be entitled to monetary reparations, the mayor would only commit to supporting a "community discussion" on the subject, endorsing a Tulsa City Council resolution scheduled for a Wednesday vote that would formally apologize for the massacre and explore restitution.

"What's complicated about it is: Where does the money come from? What's the source of it? Who does it get paid to? How do you calculate who it gets paid to? Is it money? Or is it work from an economic development standpoint?" Bynum said. "Now, this is not something that there's a tremendous track record in the history of our country around."

"The other issue that I've been very public about is, should this generation of Tulsans be taxed to pay for something that criminals did 100 years ago? This was not a lawful act that caused our community to be victimized. That's a question that I think has to be addressed. So there are any number of different questions that, in my mind at least, having spent a tremendous amount of time over the last five years thinking about this issue, do make it complex," Bynum said. "And if there were easy answers, somebody else would have already done it."

Appearing frustrated after two questions on the topic, the mayor asked, "Any questions about the actual search?" 

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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