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Massacre descendants' group: Don't submit your DNA to Tulsa graves investigators

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Chris Polansky / KWGS News
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Investigators dig in Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery on July 15, 2020, as part of the search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

A nonprofit that advocates for descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is advising people not to heed the city of Tulsa's call for them to submit samples of their DNA.

"A few weeks ago, we were notified about the City of Tulsa contracting out the sophisticated job of identifying the 14 DNA samples secured from the mass graves site at Oaklawn Cemetery," Justice for Greenwood said in a news release. "I wish this were news to celebrate.

"However, they've created no privacy protections for the descendants or Black people in Greenwood and North Tulsa who decide to submit their DNA willingly. And that is a HUGE problem."

The group noted recent news out of New Jersey in which police used blood drawn from a newborn's routine medical screening as part of a cold-case investigation.

Experts on policing and surveillance, Justice For Greenwood said, "urged us to caution our community to hold off if they have not already submitted their DNA."

"Given Tulsa's history of racial discrimination against Black people, and also the involvement of the police in that discrimination from the massacre in 1921 to the present with violence against Black people, we need to be sure that the process of DNA collection can not be weaponized against Black residents of Tulsa," said Loyola Law School professor Eric Miller, an attorney working with Justice For Greenwood, reached by phone Thursday.

"Governments change. Mayors change. Chiefs of police change. And unless there's some guarantee that this database can not be misused, we ought to be extremely cautious about how it can be misused," Miller said.

"I think you can understand why people ought to be worried about the criminal justice implications of having an all-Black DNA database," Miller said, noting even individuals who believe law enforcement access to such a database would only target "bad people" in their families could come under scrutiny in certain circumstances.

Miller said people who have already submitted DNA shouldn't "panic," but recommended they read a list of concerns about how their DNA may be used.

The group plans to hold a community town hall event on Aug. 25 to discuss the DNA issue.

The city announced in March the selection of Utah-based Intermountain Forensics to lead the DNA-based investigation into the identity of individuals whose remains are found over the course of the search for massacre victims.

DNA samples "will help us gather preliminary data that will be very important for our genealogical research phase," the company says on their website. "The more information we are able to gather regarding the families from 1921, the greater chances we have of identification."

Reached by email Thursday, Intermountain Forensics declined comment.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said in June of 2021 that 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."

The mayor's office did not respond to a Thursday morning request for comment about the Justice For Greenwood stance.

As many as 300 Black Tulsans were killed by white mobs over two days in 1921 in an attack that left Greenwood almost entirely destroyed. Many victims' remains have never been found; to date, no restitution has ever been paid to victims or their families.

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.