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Amid Protests, Remains Unearthed In The Search For Race Massacre Victims Laid To Rest

An emotional scene unfolded at Oaklawn Cemetery today during the city's reinterment of remains excavated during the search for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims. 


Kristi Williams is a member of the Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee. She protested the reinterment, and said the remains shouldn’t be buried yet because they haven’t been identified.  


“We don’t know who they belong to. We need to try to find their families before we rebury them. It just makes sense,” said Williams. 


Fellow committee member Sherry Gamble-Smith was also at the protest. She said committee members received invitations to a public ceremony that was to include politicians and other speakers, but she also thought the city should wait until the remains were identified.


After getting the invitations, the committee voted Tuesday evening to postpone the ceremony and reburial. 


On Thursday, committee chair Kavin Ross texted members that a private ceremony would go ahead today. And it did: in a closed cemetery with locked gates. Protestors and media stood on the other side of a chainlink fence covered in black mesh.  


Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist working on the excavation, spoke through the mesh to protestors. She gave several reasons for the reburial, including that not all of the remains unearthed were thrown carelessly into a mass grave.


“Some of these people were buried formally. That’s partly why we’re trying to respectfully rebury them because we had many people who were buried in nice caskets with beautiful hardware, plaques that said ‘my darling boy.’ I can’t keep those people above ground. I can’t do it.”


Stubblefied said there are three potential massacre victims at the site: two who were suspiciously buried, and one whose body has bullet holes.


When asked why the city didn’t hold back just these remains until identification was finished, Stubblefield said keeping people above ground doesn’t help gather any extra information.


State archeologist Kary Stackelbeck said the spot where the city dug also has other buried bodies. 


“Not everybody within this excavation area has been disinterred. The intention was to try to keep them together if at all possible. From an archaeological perspective, it’s not at all unusual that you’d want to go back to the original context.”


Stackelbeck said the city is willing to dig up the remains again should that be necessary.


Williams questioned that idea. She said she’d been told the remains could be stored for years in a climate-controlled environment. 


“So why rebury them and then go back? They’re not going to do that. That’s a lot more money involved. Just do it right the first time. We’re an oversight committee. If we’re making these recommendations and we vote on things, then we need to be heard, not disregarded.” 


Officials and protestors spoke about appointing an independent person from the community to help with communication between both sides.