Committee Members Tell City Councilors Frustrations With Recent Steps In Tulsa Mass Grave Search

Aug 5, 2021

Members of the 1921 graves investigation team dig in Oaklawn Cemetery in June 2021.

Members of an oversight committee in Tulsa’s search for mass graves holding victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre expressed to city councilors their displeasure over last week’s reinterment of remains.

The committee held a meeting July 27 after being invited to a reburial ceremony at Oaklawn Cemetery and voted to postpone it. The reinterment happened last Friday.

Tulsa state Rep. Regina Goodwin said that happened with areas of the cemetery still untouched, weeks ahead of when they expected work to wrap up, before remains were fully examined and without a process in place for locating descendants of any victims identified.

"You've got a lot of folks that are upset, and rightfully so. Because we're talking about people. We're talking about somebody's mama, somebody's daddy, somebody's baby — not to mention the small caskets that were found that we would like to have some answers for. Right?" Goodwin said. "And I don't think we're asking too much. And I think if we begin a work, we need to complete a work, and it needs to be done with integrity and it needs to be done with the utmost professionalism and communication.

"Because if we are the public oversight committee and we're not being heard, what is the point?"

Mayor G.T. Bynum’s office has said the reinterment was a legal requirement. Committee member Greg Robinson said the spirit of the investigation is important.

"We took this process not from a legal sense but from a sense of trying to do the right thing. That was the spirit from the beginning. What has been violated more than anything is the spirit of why we started this process," Robinson said.

City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper’s district encompasses much of the prosperous Black community known as Greenwood that white mobs destroyed 100 years ago. They killed as many as 300 Black Tulsans.

Hall-Harper said transparency and accountability are key in the search for victims’ graves.

"I believe this is not just something that impacts my community, but the City of Tulsa," Hall-Harper said.

Experts doing the fieldwork at Oaklawn have said there is nothing else to learn by keeping remains above ground right now. While some remains are potentially massacre victims, including one man who had been shot in the head, others exhumed were buried in formal funerals.

The city says the next stage of the investigation will be planned after an exhumation report expected this fall.