An Open Letter to the Tulsa City Council

What went wrong with the Mass Graves investigation and how to fix it by Randy Hopkins



 

UPDATE ON JUNE 25, 2022 - Unfortunately, since the following letter was sent to the Tulsa City Council in March, the City’s treatment of the Graves Investigation’s Public Oversight Committee and the public at large has continued to deteriorate. It appears the Mayor’s Office gave no advance notice to the public of the recent June 21 “presentation” to the Oversight Committee. The time of the presentation was set to discourage attendance and “technical issues” conveniently limited comments from some Committee members.

Highhandedly, the Mayor’s staff has now unilaterally decreed that all future meetings will be held only virtually, where that staff can lock out Committee members’ comments. Live meetings, combined with hybrid virtual access, would allow the public to better understand what is really occurring beneath the veneer of City press releases.

This is in sharp contrast to the rules that were promulgated before the Race Massacre Centennial, which focused the nation’s eyes on Tulsa. Back then, former Vice Mayor Amy Brown emphasized that the Oversight Committee was empowered to set the meeting agendas.[1] With respect to live vs. hybrid meetings, Brown said on February 23, 2021, that: “you are welcome to convene in another format if it is more ideal for you. There is no prohibition to prevent you from meeting in the format that you prefer.” [2] Once the Centennial was over and a single body with bullet holes was discovered in Oaklawn in late June 2021, things changed. Doing things the “wrong way” now rules the day.


LETTER TO TULSA’S CITY COUNCIL IN MARCH 2022

 

The Public Oversight Committee has been widely touted as a powerful component of the City of Tulsa’s 1921 Graves Investigation. Mayor G. T. Bynum made that crystal clear in 2019 when he declared to Tulsa and the world that “folks from outside government” would “oversee the process.” He proclaimed that the Committee — made up of descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre victims and other influential members of Tulsa’s African-American community — would provide transparency and hold the City “accountable” for doing things “the right way.” Their job was to “point out (where) it isn’t being done in the right way and where we need to be right.” [3]

As recently as January 17, 2022, Scott Ellsworth, a member of the City’s Physical Investigations team, declared that the prospect of future excavations was “in the hands of the public oversight committee that the City of Tulsa has created.”[4] Since the Centennial of the Race Massacre, however, the City has treated the Public Oversight Committee as little more than a stage prop. If that seems a harsh, consider this:

1. The vanishing homicide investigation.

Mayor Bynum spoke forcefully in 2019 where he assured everyone that “we are treating this as a homicide investigation.” That never happened. You heard the Deputy Mayor on March 2. When asked if this was a homicide investigation or an archeological dig, she told you without a moment’s hesitation that it was an “archeological dig.” In what became a pattern, the Oversight Committee was not consulted on this shift, learned of it only in July 2021, and could not find out who made the decision to drop the homicide investigation.

The explanation given to the Committee (and to you on March 2) was that all the culprits of the Massacre were long dead. But the Mayor knew that fact in 2019. Everybody did.

The Mayor said that made no difference. In what he described as a “basic compact” with the Massacre victims, Bynum declared:

“It doesn’t matter if you were murdered two weeks ago or ninety-eight years ago. No family in this community should have to have part of their family story that an awful event happened and their family member disappeared and they never knew what happened. That’s not acceptable. And that is why we are treating this as a homicide investigation.”

There is more at stake here than putting anyone in jail, even if they were alive. There is finally finding the truth. A homicide investigator could help with that. By suddenly advancing the “everyone is dead” alibi with a straight face, the Office of the Mayor treated the Oversight Committee as simpletons who couldn’t remember the Bynum’s public promises. Now, the City Council is being treated the same way.

2. Moving the goal posts of the 2021 Oaklawn “dig.”

At your latest meeting, you were told that the purpose of the 2021 Oaklawn dig was to find the so-called Original 18 - male victims of the Massacre for whom some records exist. As a result, searchers limited their focus to the remains of Black males in plain, handleless wood coffins. But that was not what the Oversight Committee was told before the Massacre Centennial. In January 2021, the City’s physical investigation team told the Committee that a coffin’s hardware would not preclude a finding that a body was a Massacre victim. In March 2021, the same team said that did not expect to find only male victims and would not restrict their search to males only. [5]

No one consulted with the Committee on the change of scope or even told them about it. They learned of it on July 27, 2021. Even then, they could not get answers as to who made the decision to change the target. The end result is that the City of Tulsa now finds itself in the ridiculous public posture of appearing to discriminate against female and minor-aged Massacre victims. Try explaining that to your constituents.

3. The “Stop Dig” order.

On June 22, 2021, things seem to be swimmingly with the Oaklawn dig. State Archeologist Dr. Kary Stackelbeck recorded a video report that more remains were being unearthed and the dig was expanding further south. This was precisely the direction where a 2000 Race Riot Commission map shows the location of the “Original 18.” It’s likely the same direction that the newly announced dig will take.

Two days later, however, the bottom dropped out. Dr. Stackelbeck announced that the dig was over and that eight archeologists under contract with a private corporation (CARDNO), along with archeologists from the University of Oklahoma, were being sent home. The CARDNO contract contemplated a 6-8 week dig. They were banished after 3 weeks. Again, the Oversight Committee was not consulted, learned only after the fact, and could get no clarity on who made the decision.

The City administration now tells you that the entire “team” made the decision, but Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, leader of the investigation team on the ground, told the Oversight Committee in July 2021 that:


“I agree that there is a bad perception. I share your sentiment that we found something interesting, then almost immediately stopped, and I agree that’s how it looks. I can’t answer your question about who gave the order, I don’t have that knowledge.” [6]

The “bad perception” part of Dr. Stubblefield’s statement relates to the apparent reason for the “stop dig” order — the discovery of one set of remains with gunshot trauma. Just one. That was announced on June 24, 2021, in the same video report that announced the dig’s termination. Finding one trauma victim — what they were looking for — was enough to scuttle the dig. The City administration made itself look conspiratorial — or panicked — and running from the truth. This was self-inflicted damage on the part of the City government and it’s not the only instance of that. Even those Tulsans who just want the graves investigation to be over and done with have been damaged by the failure to finish the Oaklawn dig when all hands were on deck.

The City is, commendably, getting ready to extend the Oaklawn dig. That work should have already been completed under the original contracts. Now, the contracting process has to start from scratch and will proceed in the new reality of inflation, shortages, and even war. How much more will it cost now? The assumption that the Oaklawn dig could be seamlessly renewed turns out to have been extraordinarily faulty.

4. The “leave ‘em in the ground” order.

Having found human remains in a mass grave, the City disinterred nineteen for study but left fourteen in the ground. Again, there was no advance consultation with the Oversight Committee, they learned of it well after the fact, and “the decider” was not revealed. Leaving the fourteen to lie was an outgrowth of the new scheme to target only males in plain wood coffins. The fourteen are said to be women and children in fancier coffins, such as wood coffins with handles attached. The Oversight Committee has been repeatedly told that leaving them in place was a way to show “respect.”

The Oversight Committee finally learned on March 1, 2022, how the investigation team knew that the fourteen coffins contained females and children. According to Dr. Stubblefield, the “wood” caskets have so deteriorated that the skeletons are exposed and it was possible to determine sex and relative age just by looking. No opening of caskets was required.

How did the City show “respect” for these exposed remains? By using an earthmover to cover them with dirt on July 30, 2021. Before the covering, nineteen airtight caskets for the previously disinterred adults and plastic storage bins for the infants were replaced in the same excavation pit. Dr. Stubblefield, who voted against the July 30 reburial, warned that those modern caskets were at risk of moving. If so, that would place the fourteen sets of exposed human remains at risk of further damage.

Why could the new caskets move? Dr. Stubblefield also explained that a creek of water was running under, or even through the excavation hole. Committee Chair Kavin Ross said that mud had flowed into the old caskets even before the dig, called it a “mud pit” and a “big bowl of soup.”

Treating the fourteen remains this way was a curious way to show respect for the dead, Massacre victims or not.

5. The arbitrary decision to rebury and the July 27, 2021 “private” briefing.

Last Wednesday, the Council was reminded that meetings of the Oversight Committee were available to the public to view in real-time. But that wasn’t true on July 27, 2021, when the City held a “private” briefing and announced its unilateral decision to reinter nineteen sets of human remains back in the mud pit. By keeping the public away, the City isolated the Oversight Committee and created yet another appearance that it was engaged in a cover-up.

At the end of the meeting, the Oversight Committee voted unanimously to delay the reburial. That included Chairman Kavin Ross who you met on March 2. Dr. Stubblefield joined in. One of the issues that needed further study was reburying at another Oaklawn excavation, the Sexton, which was far above the water line. The City’s former Deputy Mayor had herself urged Sexton as a temporary reburial site months earlier. Dr. Shackelbeck also urged that Sexton be considered. The Committee also wanted answers to their many unanswered questions. The Mayor’s Chief of Staff promised to get the answers “immediately, tomorrow.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, the City bulled ahead with the reburial for July 30. The Oversight Committee got less than 48 hours' notice. It was a return to the old days, where, in the words of Kavin Ross, the City just arbitrarily “did things.”

6. The July 30, 2021 Day of Disgrace.

We live in a nation torn by racial divisions. What the City did on July 30 created both a harsh visual metaphor for that strife and poured fuel on the fires. The burial started at 9:00 AM. Combined with the short notice, this prevented the Oversight Committee from invoking judicial help. Inside the barred gates of Oaklawn Cemetery, approximately twenty people — only four of them Black — said a prayer before the City’s earthmover rumbled into action.

Outside Oaklawn’s iron fence, Massacre descendants, only just learning of the news, watched in shock, anguish, and anger. “This is a crime! This is a crime! This is a CRIME!," one of them shouted.

What was so magic about having a reburial on July 30 is another unanswered question. Apparently, the City just wanted its way and got it, consequences be damned. The work was handled by City equipment and crews and they could have been sent into action at a later date. Contrary to the City administration’s later false assertion, the Oversight Committee never approved that reinterment in any form. The truth was the exact opposite. [7] Indeed, it is possible that the City violated state law by its actions on July 30, given the later representations of the Mayor’s press office to the Washington Post. [8]

The videos and photographs of that day are now part of the City of Tulsa’s “permanent record.” The effect of its actions was to rub the noses of the Public Oversight Committee and beyond them the Greenwood Community into the dirt of the City’s recreated mass grave. That day will not soon be forgotten.

7. The March 1, 2022 public meeting of the Oversight Committee.

It would be nice if I could say things changed for the better in the March 1 Oversight meeting. The City was, after all, agreeable to renewing the dig. If anything, the condescending treatment of the Oversight Committee was even worse. At no point were Committee members asked for their opinions, though they offered some, and no votes were taken. The Committee was just there to “ask questions,” after which the plan to be followed was imperiously announced. It was what the Mayor’s office wanted to do in the first place.

Imperiousness, condescension, and broken promises do not win friends and influence people, at least favorably. You are dealing with people who, for excellent reasons, have a deep distrust of Tulsa’s city government. Yet, everything that the government, or at least the Office of the Mayor, has done since the Centennial has been at war with trust. Members of the Oversight Committee, supposed representatives of their communities, have been made falsely to appear as lackeys complicit in the stop dig and the excuseless cruelty of July 30. That too will be a hard one to forget.

You should know that Chairman Kavin Ross, who spoke to you on March 2, has been treated in a most cavalier fashion by the Mayor’s Office. When the Office told him about their decision to reinter on July 30, it would give him no justification. When he pressed, he was told they just needed to “push the process along.” When he opposed the reburial at the private briefing, he revealed that:

“I still have questions that are not answered. I still don’t see a rush to have this ceremony on Friday...Is it an issue with funding? I’ve been screaming that from the top of this whole...before everybody started jumping ship. I asked where is the next round of money? Was it placed on the city budget? How much do we have in our budget? I could never get any clear-cut information on why I cannot get that kind of information.”

Along the way, Ross’ pleas that Tulsa show the watching world how things should be done have fallen on the deafest of ears.

In the process, the City government has damaged itself and the image of Tulsa. The City is echoing past history and not a happy one. The day after the Race Massacre, top drawer Tulsa bankers and businessmen announced a “reparations” plan for Greenwood — they used that word. As soon as the comforting news of the rebuilding effort was nested in newspaper headlines across the nation, it was dropped like a rock. [9] Once the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial was in the rear-view mirror and one bullet-ridden skeleton was discovered, rocks again started dropping.

 

I’d respectfully suggest three things to get the investigation back on track and they are all in the City’s control. Happily, following this path will make the Graves investigation easier, less stressful, and hopefully happier for everyone compared to the present path. It’s your best chance for a ‘win-win” situation.

One, the Mayor needs to apologize to the Public Oversight Committee. He made the table-pounding promises. He and the City reaped great public relations benefit before and during the Centennial of the Race Massacre for their commitments. While his staffers were the public face of dealings with the Committee, he sat at the pinnacle of power on the issues. The buck stops at his desk. In my experience around Tulsa, I believe that most people are a pretty forgiving sort. But you’ve got to ask for it and mean it.

Second, the City must truly start doing things the “right way.” That means no more treating the Oversight Committee like lap dogs or propaganda props. No more failing to seek the Committee’s advice in advance, no more keeping them in the dark, and no more unilateral decision-making. No more broken promises. When Kevin Ross asks for information, he should get it... pronto. And no more “our way or the highway” attitudes. The Committee should be treated as colleagues, instead of being excluded from the teamwork. The Mayor promised this would be done in the “right way” and that’s exactly how things should be handled beginning now.

The next time the Oversight Committee says “jump,” I suggest the City strongly consider jumping. After all, if the Oversight Committee’s advice had been heeded, the Mayor would not now have egg on his face for the breach of his promises. The new and expanded Oaklawn dig would have already been concluded, instead of having to be re-contracted in troublesome times. The disrespectful treatment of the human remains left in the ground would not be an issue. The City would not be in the absurd position of appearing to discriminate against female and child victims of the Massacre. The horrible images of raw, racial divisions on July 30 would not exist. The public anger and stress levels would be reduced.

Wouldn’t that have been much better?

Finally, I suggest that the Mayor’s office and the Oversight Committee engage in a short mediation effort. That might pay dividends down the road.

The way the City goes about the Graves Investigation is almost as important as the finding of victims. In the long run, it might be the most important.



Randy Hopkins

 

Endnotes:


1. Jan. 28, 2021 meeting of the Public Oversight Committee at 1:27:08 forward.

2. February 23, 2021 meeting of the Public Oversight Committee at 1:46 forward.

3. The evidence and authorities on which the following claims are based are listed in much detail in my essay "Echo of History: The City of Tulsa’s Mass Graves Debacle," published on October 1, 8, and 15, 2021 by The Oklahoma Eagle and available online at https://www.centerforpublicsecrets.org/post/echo-of-history-the-city-of-tulsa-s-mass-graves-debacle. I will not repeat them here, but if any Councilor wants clarification on my source material, you have but to ask.

4. https://lsa.umich.edu/history/news-events/all-events.detail.html/90099-21667838.html

5. For January 2021 representation, January 28, 2021 Public Oversight Committee Meeting, 1:31:50 to 1:33:20 (Dr. Stackelbeck). For March 2021 representation, March 23, 2021, Pu8blic Oversight public meeting, 41:00 to 43:30 (including Dr. Stubblefield, “But I don’t expect this particular feature, this mass grave, to have only males...” and “I’m not reserving it to only males....we are talking about pillagers, these are the worst kind of pirates, there is going to be raping and murdering not just shooting guys...”). One possible explanation for the presence of higher-quality coffins in a mass grave is that Tulsa suffered a “run of coffins” in early June of1921. Funeral homes might have reached deep into their inventory, even throwing in casket shipping crates, at least one of which was found in the Oaklawn pit.

6. July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:33:05 to 2:34:10. Earlier in the briefing, Dr. Stubblefield was asked “Who made that decision to stop and conclude the dig.” She replied, “Yeah, I have no information for you on that.” 1:44:25 to 1:46:15.

7. The City justified the July 30 reburial by pointing the finger at the Committee itself and its approval of a temporary reinterment plan in March 2021. But that plan imposed no specific deadline date — July 30 or otherwise. Indeed, when that plan was presented in January 2021, Tulsa’s then Deputy Mayor Amy Brown said, “We are not aware of a restriction that limits how long they can be out of the ground for analysis” — a representation made after consultations with the State Department of Health, the Department’s general counsel, and the City of Tulsa’s legal team.

The re-interment plan approved in March not only did not impose a July 30 deadline, it barred it. The plan required, first, a determination of whether discovered graves did or did not house Massacre victims. Even without regard to the future DNA analysis, fundamental forensic analysis was not yet concluded in late July. It wasn’t even certain that the remains were Massacre victims. After the controversial reburial, Mayor Bynum’s press aide Michelle Brooks admitted that “further analysis” would be necessary to determine that fact. The report of the Physical Investigations Committee was seven months away. Even if Massacre victims were confirmed, the March re-interment plan provided an option (a) to store the coffins above ground or (b) to rebury them somewhere in Oaklawn. The word “OR” was capitalized. The City’s hands were not tied in any way on July 30.


8. After the July 30 public relations disaster, the Mayor’s office attempted damage control by telling the Washington Post that the City was required to rebury the remains to meet state “permit requirements” obtained before the June excavation. The state permit was alleged to require the city to reinter after the “on-site forensic analysis, documentation and DNA sampling were complete.” The Mayor’s press aide added that Tulsa had to “abide by the permit requirements that were filed with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, requiring the remains to be temporarily interred at Oaklawn Cemetery.” This story made the City seem reasonable to the public.

It is dubious that such a permit ever existed; if it did, the City violated state law with the July 30 Oaklawn reburial. Under Oklahoma law, a permit to disinter is required only if reburial will occur in a different cemetery or for the purpose of cremation. In that case, a “Request for Disinterment Permit,” specifically naming the different cemetery (or specifying cremation) must be filed with the State Department of Health in advance and receive State approval.

Here, the City and Public Oversight Committee agreed to a temporary reburial back in the same cemetery — Oaklawn. That was the City’s intention from the beginning. If the City filed for a disinterment permit naming a different cemetery — a prerequisite for getting a permit — then it filed a false application. Making false statements in multiple permit applications constitutes a felony or, in this case, nineteen felonies — one for each set of remains — each punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and/or two years in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The warning for those penalties is printed at the bottom of the permit application form.

Whenever reinterment is intended in the same cemetery, as here, no state permit is required. The applicable statute provides that “if the dead body or fetus is to be disinterred and reinterred in the same cemetery, a disinterment permit is not required.” Instead, a simple Notice, to be filed within five days of the disinterment, is sufficient, with no state approval needed. There is no deadline for reinterment under a Notice procedure, as then-Deputy Mayor Brown confirmed along with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office, and the City of Tulsa’s legal department.

9. https://www.centerforpublicsecrets.org/post/mask-of-atonement

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