© 2024 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Excavations resume in search for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre graves as documentary critical of city’s process set to premiere

An image promoting the documentary "Oaklawn"
The Center for Public Secrets
Kristi Eaton
An image promoting the documentary "Oaklawn"

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and officials involved in the reenergized search for the graves of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre held a press conference Wednesday as a film critical of Tulsa’s efforts to work with the Greenwood community is scheduled to be released.

Previous 1921 massacre excavations in Oaklawn Cemetery ended in July 2021. Some members of Tulsa’s Black community have questioned that break, as well as other decisions made by the city. At Wednesday's press conference, Bynum explained Tulsa’s choices by saying the work is inherently slow and involves the remains of non-victims.

“The tension on all of this, that we have to be very careful about as a city, is the desire to move at a quick pace to try and find these victims 100 years after they were murdered, while at the same time working within a legal framework that is respectful of the remains of people buried in this cemetery,” said Bynum.

Bynum said after last summer’s excavations concluded, the team of involved researchers came back to the city in early 2022 to recommend a second dig in Oaklawn based on what they learned.

“And that is what we will begin today,” said Bynum, who repeatedly emphasized his commitment to the search and the involvement of lifelong professionals.

State archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said some remains previously exhumed will be exhumed again to extract more DNA samples. Following those collections, the team will explore new areas in Oaklawn.

“We are going to expand out excavation blocks to the south and west in order to ascertain if some of the patterns we were seeing with the initial excavation last year will persist,” said Stackelbeck.

Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield said caskets without adornment will continue to be of special interest in the new search area.

“We are looking for, still, 18 individuals without headstones that are adult males buried in plain caskets,” said Stubblefield.

Intermountain Forensics Director Danny Hellwig said his company is close to releasing more information about two DNA samples collected from Oaklawn remains last year, saying it should be a matter of weeks.

The restart of the search comes as Tulsa’s Center for Public Secrets, a nonprofit with a mission of lending new perspectives to accessible information, is set to premiere a documentary looking at the Greenwood community’s role in the probe for massacre victims. “Oaklawn” is locally made by volunteers and had a budget of about $1,500, according to Whitney Chapman, co-founder and executive director of Public Secrets.

Chapman said her group was piqued by the race massacre centennial and how public rhetoric around that prominent anniversary didn’t match up with the experiences of members of the 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee, a body of people brought together to “ensure transparency and community engagement throughout the investigation,” according to the city’s website.

“We were kind of like really astounded at what we were hearing. I think some folks who were not involved in it were hearing, ‘the dig went well, we found a person with a gunshot wound, and now we’re going to stop the investigation.’ That came as a little bit of a surprise for folks,” said Chapman.

The documentary will also look at the city’s decision to reinter possible race massacre remains over the protests of members of the Black community, who were locked out of Oaklawn Cemetery last summer as a group of predominantly white people reburied the unidentified remains now scheduled to be dug up again.

“[The reburial] was just another unbelievable decision that someone made,” said Chapman, who pointed to the oversight committee’s vote to not rebury the remains. “We like to say Tulsa is one city, but from my perspective, I see it as two very different places.”

The Center for Public Secrets will host a limited public viewing of “Oaklawn” on Nov. 12. Circle Cinema will show the documentary Nov. 13 at 7:00 p.m., and every Thursday thereafter through the end of the year. The film runs a little a over an hour.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.