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Researchers seek new search for Tulsa Massacre victims; oversight committee members voice frustrations

Heavy machinery at Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 19, 2020, at the end of a test excavation in search of remains of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims.
Chris Polansky / KWGS News
Heavy machinery at Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 19, 2020, at the end of a test excavation in search of remains of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims.

The discovery of human remains that could possibly be victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma shows that the search for mass graves should continue, researchers said.

A report submitted to Tulsa’s committee overseeing the search said one body, believed to be a Black male in his mid-to-late 20s, is a possible massacre victim and had three gunshot wounds with two bullets recovered from the remains, including one from the head.

Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield said Wednesday that DNA could provide circumstantial evidence linking the remains to the massacre. But she said that it likely can never be confirmed with certainty that any remains were massacre victims.

The man was shot, Stubblefield said, but when and the circumstances of the shooting will never be known.

“The person had a death that involved another human, so that part is clear, but when that death occurred, there are no definitive indicators and the exact context of ... how did the bullets get introduced, there’s no indications under the earth for that,” Stubblefield said.

The .38-caliber bullets are believed to be from a Colt revolver, but could not be linked to the same gun because of their deteriorated condition, the more than 1,000-page report stated.

Another six bodies could not be excluded as victims, according to the report presented by Stubblefield and state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck.

The bodies were exhumed in 2021 after 35 coffins were found during the excavation with 20 sent for further examination.

One of the 20 coffins, believed to be an infant, contained no remains.

The report recommends additional excavation of Oaklawn Cemetery and additional scanning for possible mass graves in a park and adjacent homeless camp, where oral histories have indicated massacre victims were buried.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said the city will work to implement the recommendations.

“The City of Tulsa will need to solicit bids for the work to be done in order to determine the necessary budget for the next stage of this investigation,” Bynum said in a statement.

At an oversight committee meeting held virtually Tuesday, several members expressed frustration at lack of communication from the physical investigation team and city officials, as well as feelings that some of their decisions have been ignored.

"We can't leave any stones unturned," said Kristi Williams, a descendant of a massacre survivor. "We're taking the city's word for it and we should not take the city's word for it."

At a Tulsa City Council committee meeting Wednesday, Chair Vanessa Hall-Harper, also a member of the oversight committee, said there's lingering tension from how the city went about reinterring exhumed remains last summer despite a vote in opposition from committee members.

"There are concerns that the oversight committee is not being listened to," Hall-Harper said.

"If there are decisions being made and they're just being made and that's how we're going to do it, as opposed to — when you have an oversight committee, and that's what they're walking away from, you're going to have some contention," Hall-Harper said.

Oversight committee members and councilors also highlighted what they viewed as a discrepancy over how to define the search: a homicide investigation or an archaeological expedition?

Bynum said he understood where those feelings were coming from.

"There are folks who have great suspicion of the city and our work on this," Bynum said. "And on — just to be completely human, there's part of me that gets upset at that. But if my family was murdered 100 years ago and the city waited 100 years to try and find them, I'd be damn suspicious too, so I don't blame them."

Bynum explained: "This is not an archaeological dig or a history project or something like that. We are utilizing forensic anthropologists and archaeologists to find murder victims. The people that are doing this work, they do this work to find murder victims all over the United States."

Hall-Harper said that needs to be made clearer.

"We've got to have some clarification and we need to be saying the same thing," Hall-Harper said.

"I literally have people calling me saying they no longer want to be part of the oversight committee because of this, and so we have to work this out. Quickly," Hall-Harper said.

At a virtual press briefing Wednesday, Stubblefield said she, too, understands how people feel.

"It is a situation where it can be hard to please everyone, but who are we trying to please? Because, remember, we're looking for these victims and connecting them to their families, or at least to history if we can't connect them to their families. So we have to please those victims by our effort, if we can," Stubblefield said.

"And, in that sense, we're pleasing the whole city in that we're bringing some justice, if it's only justice of recognition, to these people who were thrown out, who are part of the historical record as being thrown out," she said.

"I do accept that there are different emotional responses, but I can see the actual progress so I just have to accept that that's how they feel and this is what I see I'm doing," said Stubblefield, who said she has been involved in the search for massacre victims on and off for two decades.

A city spokesperson said Friday that a timeline had not yet been established for future work or oversight committee meetings, but that the team plans to brief the city council quarterly.

The 1921 massacre occurred when a white mob descended on the Black section of Tulsa — Greenwood — and burned more than 1,000 homes, looted hundreds of others and destroyed its thriving business district. Most historians who have studied the event estimate the death toll to be between 75 and 300.

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.