Echo of History: The City of Tulsa’s Mass Graves Debacle

– By Randy Hopkins

Art by Randy Riggs

On the morning of July 30, 2021, an iron fence and locked gates divided two groups of Tulsans at the City-owned Oaklawn Cemetery. Outside the fence, aggrieved descendants of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims cried out in anger and anguish. Inside the barrier, a backhoe stood poised to dump dirt into a mass grave pit located adjacent to the cemetery’s so-called “colored” potter’s field.[1] The remains of thirty-three humans, suspected to be those of Race Massacre victims, were about to be once again covered up.[2] At the edge of the pit, another group, only a small minority of which was Black, held hands and joined in ceremonial prayer.

Two months earlier, on the exact 100-year anniversary of the incineration of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood and amid much media hoopla, the backhoe’s blade touched unplowed earth on a far different mission — the pursuit of Tulsa Race Massacre victims. Within days of the commencement of excavation came the news that a mass grave had been uncovered. This was followed by the disinterment of nineteen sets of human remains, including a pregnant woman.[3] Cameras carefully recorded the procession as individual remains were hand-carried to a nearby laboratory for forensic study. Hope blossomed that long and literally buried truths would finally begin to emerge.

On July 30, however, fledgling hope and trust were reburied alongside all the pit’s remains, the previously extracted ones now housed in gleaming white cases and dark plastic bins. Cameras, though not as many as before, recorded a drama that seemed to encapsulate the racial turmoil and conflict already polarizing the nation. The City of Tulsa’s mass graves investigation had turned into an ugly echo of the town’s ugliest past.

Tulsa: June 2, 1921

On the evening of June 1, 1921, while smoke from Greenwood hung in the air, Tulsa’s reputation hung with it. The City’s Mayor T. D. Evans, at least a majority of the City Commission, and the Tulsa Police Department were heavily implicated, not just in failing to prevent the Race Massacre, but for having caused and coordinated it.[4]


Mayor T.D. Evans courtesy of the Ruth Avery Collection at Oklahoma State University - Tulsa.

Tulsa’s financial elite, led by its Chamber of Commerce, rushed to the rescue of the City’s image and its “wounded pride.” Almost instantly, the Chamber’s president Alva J. Niles proclaimed a “plan of reparations in order that the homes (in Greenwood) may be rebuilt and families as nearly as possible rehabilitated.” Vast sums were promised for “wiping out the stain” from the City’s reputation.[5]

News of the reparations plan quickly reached America’s newspaper readers. By June 2, the city’s promise to rebuild and redress generated prominent headlines from New York to Los Angeles. Tulsa was presented in heroic terms, grief-stricken, sorrowful, and seeking to atone for the wrongs.[6] The New York Times called it setting “an example for other cities.”[7] At the very moment the great catastrophe had momentarily captured the nation’s attention, Tulsa’s reputation won a reprieve.

Tulsa: June 27, 2019

On June 27, 2019, at the 36th Street Event Center in north Tulsa, Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum delivered a ringing endorsement of the City’s mass graves investigation — the search for both buried victims and the buried truth of the Race Massacre. Bynum conceded that the City of Tulsa had “not earned the trust on doing this the right way, both in its actions to protect Black Tulsans during the Massacre and to wait ninety-eight years to actually start this investigation.”

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, flanked by City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper (left) and former Deputy Mayor Amy Brown, speaks during a Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee meeting on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Photo by Joey John for the Tulsa World.


To win this trust, Bynum introduced a public committee, namely “folks from outside the City Government” who would oversee the process. Bynum empowered this Public Oversight Committee to provide transparency, to hold the City “accountable” for doing the investigation in “the right way,” and to “point out (where) if isn’t being done in the right way and where we need to be right.”

There seemed to be steel in Bynum’s words when he proclaimed that:

“If you get murdered in Tulsa we have a very basic compact with you that we will do everything we can do to find out what happened to you and to render justice for your family. And our homicide department has among the best record in the nation…and in my mind and I think in the policymakers of the City’s mind 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 as 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.” (emphasis added).

Mayor Bynum’s promises, a public relations windfall for himself and City government, committed the City — or seemed to commit it — to provide criminology expertise in the pursuit of the truth. A homicide investigation would consolidate the skills of trained criminologists and detectives.[8]

For two years, it appeared to the outside world that the City of Tulsa was indeed doing things the right way. Triumphing over the hideous past and rendering at least some justice finally seemed possible when the excavation of the mass grave in the City’s Oaklawn Cemetery commenced on June 1, 2021.

A promotional image featuring Mayor G.T. Bynum (center) during the excavation period of the 1921 Graves Investigation. Photo provided by the City of Tulsa.

Tulsa: June 4, 1921

Tulsa’s ballyhooed 1921 rebuilding plan for Greenwood turned out to be no more than a public relations hustle. Having assured the American public of the City’s heroic sincerity, the plan disappeared without a trace. The Chamber of Commerce, the author of the reparations plan, made no substantial effort to raise funds for rebuilding and provided not a penny for reconstruction. As it concerned Greenwood, the word “reparations” vanished from the Tulsa newspapers of the day.

Insidiously, the Chamber of Commerce’s Bureau of Public Welfare issued a nationwide directive not to contribute to any rebuilding fund; outside donations were ostentatiously returned. People were also urged not to donate directly to “the negroes.” The City’s pride, it was said, demanded that Tulsa go it alone. Move along, nothing to see here was the message. It was one of the first steps in the Great Forgetting of Tulsa’s race war. Going it alone turned out to be doing nothing.[9]


Tulsa: here and now

Once the centennial commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre was in the rear-view mirror — and coffins in an apparent mass grave were unearthed — the City of Tulsa’s search for mass graves succumbed to a new reality. Mayor Bynum’s words of steel turned out to have the weight of feathers.

1. The homicide investigation that wasn’t. If a homicide investigation ever ensued, it was kept concealed from the Public Oversight Committee. When Committee member Chief Egunwale Amusan asked why there was no homicide investigation during a July 27, 2021 virtual private briefing, the City’s startling response was that the Oaklawn mass graves pit was not considered a “crime scene.” The reasons, as given, were that all the culprits of the Race Massacre were long dead and criminal prosecution of the City itself was allegedly time-barred by a statute of limitations.[10]

But G. T. Bynum had said it didn’t matter if the murders happened ninety-eight years ago. He called it a “basic compact” with the victims when he forcefully committed the City to a homicide investigation. He cast the legal barriers away for purposes of the City’s 1921 Graves Investigation when he promised Tulsans, including descendants of Race Massacre victims, that his government would do “everything we can to find out what happened.”[11] He reiterated this pledge when he told an audience at George Carver Middle School, “We will follow the truth where that takes us.”[12]

In retrospect, it appears that the Mayor’s office was already preparing to render Bynum’s promises inoperative by inviting former Tulsa district judge William Kellough to appear before the Public Oversight Committee’s virtual meeting on May 17, 2021. The Judge effectively and professionally explained two limited legal issues — that dead people can’t be criminally prosecuted and that there were potential statute of limitations prohibitions against civil and criminal prosecution of Tulsa’s local government. In the case of a criminal prosecution, he said that the City could only be liable for a $5,000 penalty.

Kellough did not say that crimes had not been committed in the Massacre or that Oaklawn could not be considered the scene of a crime if potential Massacre victims were found. He did not so much as hint that it was not important to discover the truth or that the talents of homicide investigators should be spurned in the pursuit of that truth.[13] His limited and precise legal presentation was later spun by the City into an excuse to shove Mayor Bynum’s “basic compact” and his promise of a homicide investigation down the memory hole.[14]

Conducting a true investigation here demands much more than jailing culprits or slapping the City of Tulsa’s wrist with a token fine. It is about finding what really happened during those days of evil. One cannot have “truth and reconciliation,” much less justice, without first unearthing the truth.

2. The order to stop the dig. Thirty-four coffins were located in the Oaklawn mass gravesite, at least one of which contained evidence of gunshot trauma.[15] Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield of the City’s physical investigation team — and a forensic scientist specializing in the recovery and identification of human remains — said that her profession’s “tradition” was to “dig everybody up.”[16] That tradition was cast aside. Fourteen coffins were left in the ground, later to be covered back up.[17]

Back in January 2021, the City’s physical investigation team said that a coffin's hardware would not preclude the finding that a body was a Massacre victim. [18] During the July 27, 2021 “private” briefing, however, Dr. Stubblefield explained that a decision had been made to target only bodies in plain wood boxes, leaving untouched those in fancier coffins such as wood boxes with hardware handles.[19]

One possible explanation for the presence of higher quality coffins scattered among plain boxes in a mass grave is that Tulsa suffered a “run of coffins” in early June 1921. Funeral homes might have reached deep into their inventory, even throwing in casket shipping crates, at least one of which was also found in the Oaklawn pit.[20]

In March 2021, the physical investigation team reported that they did not expect to find only male victims and would not be restricting their investigation to males only.[21] On July 27, 2021, however, the limited extractions were further justified by a decision to target black male corpses for analysis.[22] Chief Amusan complained that the City was “marginalizing” Black women and children, already among the most marginalized people in the nation.[23]

The Public Oversight Committee had not been consulted about these diminished “targets” and learned of them only at the July 27, 2021 private briefing. In response, Amusan warned that an incomplete extraction of remains would not only mislead the public but would arouse suspicion that the City of Tulsa was covering up the truth.[24] His prophetic words went unheeded.

Exactly who made the decision to stop the dig remains a mystery. Chief Amusan directly asked the question, “Who made that decision to stop and to conclude the dig?” Dr. Stubblefield, head of the investigation team on the ground, replied, “I have no information for you on that.”[25] She later added, “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.”[26]

Leaving the fourteen caskets in place subjected them to further degradation. It turned out that the gravesite near Oaklawn’s so-called “colored” potter’s field was located in a low spot with a creek running under, or even through it, according to Dr. Stubblefield.[27] Every time it rained, the excavated trench became a “big swimming hole” in the words of Physical Investigation team member and State Archeologist Dr. Kary Stackelbeck.[28] 1921 Public Oversight Committee chair Kavin Ross explained that mud had flowed into the coffins even before the excavation and called the area a “mud pit” and a “big bowl of soup” on the eve of July 30 reburial.[29]

While the Investigation team suggested that perhaps they could later unearth the still entombed fourteen, that task has been made more difficult technically, financially, and politically by the City’s unilateral decision literally to restore the Oaklawn mass grave on July 30.[30]

3. The City’s private briefing of July 27. From its birth, all meetings of the Public Oversight Committee were announced in advance and open to the public. There have been no public meetings since the Race Massacre centennial. The Committee was cut out of the loop by the City of Tulsa after nineteen sets of human remains were hand-carried by Oversight Committee members to a lab for study.

In apparent response to an email query from Committee member Amusan, the City scheduled the first and only “private briefing” of the Committee. This occurred on July 27, 2021, just three days before the stealthy reinterment. Previously, members of the public had been given notice of Oversight Committee meetings and were able to watch and comment. In late July, the public was kept in the dark. Even now, the video of the private session remains absent from the City’s Graves Investigation webpage.[31]


In retrospect, it appears that the primary motive for the private briefing was a desire to have the Committee rubber-stamp the City’s abrupt decision to rebury the disinterred remains. The City knew that reburial was a touchy subject, and not only for members of the Oversight Committee. Many descendants of Race Massacre victims railed against the notion of even temporarily reburying possible victims in the same muddy pit from which they had been removed. What sort of ceremony would take place mattered greatly to the Oversight Committee, especially since the mass graves investigators had not finished their analysis or issued a written report.

Why was July 30 so important to the City? The Mayor and his staff likely chose or knew of that deadline in advance and, if so, had sufficient time to inform the Oversight Committee. Instead, they waited until the last second. Acting in the manner of a plantation boss, the City told Chairman Ross about the decision and the deadline, but would give him no justification. When he pressed the City prior to the July 27 briefing, he was told they just needed to “push the process along.”[32] It was not the first time the City dismissed his questions. He had never been able to get answers to queries about finances or budgets for the investigation. Similar questions posed during the July 27 briefing also bore no fruit.[33]

Remains being re-interred at Oaklawn Cemetery on July 30, 2021. Photo provided by the City of Tulsa.

On July 27, the City justified July 30 by pointing the finger at the Committee itself and its approval of a reinterment plan in March.[34] But that plan imposed no specific deadline date — July 30 or otherwise.[35] Indeed, when that plan was first 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.[36]

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 stipulated in the plan, 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 conceded that “further analysis” will be necessary to determine that fact.[37] The final report of the Physical Investigations Committee was at least a month away.[38]

Even if Massacre victims were confirmed, the 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.[39] Hands were not tied by the re-interment plan.

Who was behind the decision to push July 30 was also steeped in confusion. The Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff said that the “team on the ground” helped make the decision, but Chief Amusan refuted that, citing Dr. Stubblefield, leader of the team on the ground, who said that she did not make the “timeline of the ceremony.”[40] Dr. Stubblefield would later join with the Oversight Committee in opposing the July 30 reburial. Dr. Kary Stackelbeck, State Archeologist, also urged more study of the issue.[41]

The unresolved matter of where in Oaklawn to rebury the remains, if at all, superseded any discussion of when. Dr. Stubblefield warned that the mass grave pit had a creek running under or even through it and constantly filled with water and mud. She emphasized the undesirable consequences posed by the accumulated water, warning that she had “real concerns” and was “really worried” that the coffins “won’t stay there.” If the remains’ new airtight enclosures began migrating, they could damage the adjoining unearthed caskets or even begin floating toward the surface.[42]

In contrast, another Oaklawn location called Sexton, high and dry and ready to go, was available as a temporary re-burial site. In February, Tulsa’s then-Deputy Mayor Brown had herself suggested Sexton for that purpose, and committee chair Ross had seconded Brown’s “excellent” alternative.[43] When Ross strongly advocated Sexton during the July 27 briefing, Dr. Stubblefield said that, given the problems with the mass graves pit, it should definitely be considered. Dr. Stackelbeck, from the University of Oklahoma, backed Sexton as “a very reasonable suggestion” and also urged its consideration.[44] She said that the re-interment plan itself was designed to “facilitate” moving reburial to a different location within Oaklawn.[45]

At the end of the three-hour private briefing, the Oversight Committee had every reason to assume that the July 30 reburial had been averted. Not only did the Committee decide unanimously to delay it pending answers to major questions, but the Physical Investigations team tried to slow things as well. Dr. Stubblefield, warning that it would create a “bad perception,” agreed with the decision to stop.[46] As noted, Dr. Stackelbeck pushed for consideration of Sexton as an alternate location. The Mayor’s deputy chief of staff Rojas promised that “tomorrow I can find out more information” and that he could get answers to the questions “immediately, tomorrow.”[47] The meeting ended.

4. The July 30 Debacle. The morrow brought no answers. On Thursday, July 29 a terse email from the City to the Oversight Committee announced that it was “working diligently” to address “some” of the questions. Which ones were not specified. The email repeated the falsehood that the re-interment plan required the fast-approaching reburial and ignored the Committee’s decision and the Physical Investigation team’s professional concerns and warnings.[48]

The reburial commenced at 9 o’clock on Friday morning, the early hour precluding the ability of the Oversight Committee to seek legal recourse. Nonetheless, word spread and distraught descendants, resolutely determined to thwart a disrespecting of corpses they now firmly believed included Massacre victims, soon arrived to set the stage for the drama that was to follow.

Approximately twenty people — only four of them Black — gathered beside the open pit to conduct a ceremony. A White minister led a prayer. Who and how the group was selected is another unknown. The backhoe then lumbered into action.


The ceremony that preceded the re-internment of remains at Oaklawn Cemetery on July 30, 2021. Photo provided by the City of Tulsa.

Outside the cemetery’s newly created wailing fence, old wounds were ripped open as the pit was filled with dirt. One astonished Black woman, who described herself as a descendant of a Race Massacre victim, shouted again and again, “This is a crime! This is a crime! This is a crime!” An elderly Black woman, weeping, moaned, “This is the worst funeral I’ve ever been to — they didn’t even cut the weeds.” For people nurtured in African customs of respect and honor for the remains of those who have passed, it was the depth of brutality. These sad spectacles, occurring within yards of the historic Route 66, passed into the city, state, and national news.[49]


Tulsa Race Massacre descendant Heather Nash, left, yells at Brenda Alford, 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee member, and forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield as remains from a mass grave are reburied at Oaklawn Cemetery on July 30, 2021. Photo by Mike Simons - Tulsa World/Associated Press.

During the July 27 private briefing, Regina Goodwin had warned that the public was going to be misled by the reburial and ceremony into thinking these were Race Massacre victims when that hadn’t yet been determined. Goodwin continued, “We’re confusing the public and I don’t want to be part of that. I want to know who is going to tell the story? How is that narrative going to work? Who is going to be in front of the microphone talking about that one?” Dr. Stubblefield responded, “Well, you do raise a valid point.” But Goodwin got no answers as to who would explain things to the public, just as the Oversight Committee failed to get answers to so many things. On the day of reckoning, the answer arrived that it was going to be left to Dr. Stubblefield, who is Black, to try to mollify the angry witnesses — the same Dr. Stubblefield who had tried to delay the looming fiasco. None of the White people who had helped create the chaos came over to help.[50]

5. The Mayor’s public relations alibi. The July 30 debacle was a public relations shambles. Attempting damage control, Mayor Bynum’s press representative, Michelle Brooks, told the Washington Post that the City was required to rebury the remains to meet “permit requirements” obtained before the June excavation. The permit, she said, required the city to reinter after the “on-site forensic analysis, documentation and DNA sampling were complete.” She 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: Regrettably, our hands are tied.[51]

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 reburial back in the same cemetery, at Oaklawn.[52] If the City filed for a disinterment permit naming a different cemetery — a prerequisite for getting a permit — then the City 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.[53]

Whenever reinterment is intended in the same cemetery, as here, no state permit is required. Oklahoma law is succinct and clear. Since November 2017, the applicable statute has provided that “if the dead body or fetus is to be disinterred and reinterred in the same cemetery, a disinterment permit is not required.”[54] Instead, a simple Notice, to be filed within five days of the disinterment, is sufficient, with no requisite state approval.[55] Nor is there any deadline for reinterment under a Notice. In January 2021, following consultations with the State Department of Health, its general counsel, and the City of Tulsa’s legal team, Deputy Mayor Brown said there was no known time restriction for reburial under a Notice process.[56]

. 6. Conclusion. Exactly who decided to ignore the Public Oversight Committee’s unanimous decision to delay the reburial is unknown, as with the other issues where the Committee tried and failed to identify deciders. The ultimate responsibility for the proper treatment of the Oversight Committee and descendants of Race Massacre victims lies with Tulsa’s Mayor G. T. Bynum, the man who launched the Graves Investigation with much bravado. He is the one who committed the City to do things “the right way.” His obligations became especially keen after the summer 2021 departure of Deputy Mayor Amy Brown, who previously conducted Public Oversight Committee meetings. Bynum owns the investigation, now more than ever.

One of the few times the Mayor spoke up during the 2021 Oversight meetings was on February 23, where the re-internment plan was being discussed. There, he dismissed Regina Goodwin’s suggestion that the City had not been taking its lead from the Oversight Committee. Bynum further complained that three Committee members were speaking “over and over and over again.” He declared that to resolve the issue “we’ll just have a vote of the Public Oversight Committee at the next meeting.”[57] At that meeting, the Committee approved the re-interment plan that the City was pushing. That plan not only did not require a hasty reburial, but precluded it. On July 27, when the Committee took a unanimous vote to delay re-interment, one that was averse to the City’s new desires, it was brushed aside like dust on an antique desk.

The July 30 reburial was a humiliating slap in the face to all Public Committee members, making them appear ineffective, subservient, and complicit. The Mayor should have anticipated this anguishing consequence. He appointed the Committee members to represent their communities and knew well that they were being looked to for answers. Chief Amusan dramatically described the process for the Mayor’s deputy during the July briefing:

"The reason why I’m asking who made the decision to stop and all these important questions is because community consensus says ‘the moment we found evidence of trauma, we stopped.’ It literally looks like everybody is involved in a cover-up from the public opinion perspective. So when they come ask us as Public Oversight members, ‘Whoa! What happened? Y’all were finding all these bodies and they just announced….they found this body and this trauma and all of this and all of a sudden we’re stopping and having a vigil.’ How that appears is it looks conspiratorial. It’s like ‘whoa, who does that?’ Once you find everything you’re looking for you stop!… If we don’t have an answer it looks like everybody is involved including the Oversight Committee… It looks bad. It looks so bad and there is no commemoration that can fix it." (emphasis by Amusan)[58]

As the City had been eloquently forewarned, dark theories and allegations of bad faith blossomed in the wake of the reinterment duplicity and unanswered questions. Committee member Regina Goodwin raised two possible motives during the July briefing - (a) the City of Tulsa’s money had been spent and no more would be found and (b) the City of Tulsa never intended to do more digging anyway.[59]

A step further is the notion that everybody was being played from the beginning and it was all just clever theatre to get past the centennial of the Race Massacre, which was certain to draw the nation’s attention. Was it preening virtue that, like the 1921 rebuilding plan, lasted only as long as the authorities felt the heat of public scrutiny? If so, the members of the Physical Investigations team, attempting a sincere and honest assessment of the evidence, have also been sandbagged by the City government.

Today, the Mayor’s mass grave investigation lies in at least partial ruin. His promise of a homicide investigation has been exposed as empty. Things have not been done in “the right way.” Trust, not in grand supply to begin with, has been shattered. It would take a showing of great character and concern for humanity for all the Oversight members to return to the City’s table.

Some Oversight Committee members, livid at the treatment and alive to the feeling of being conned, have petitioned for federal intervention.[60] If that happens, more anger and resentment will follow. If bodies are found after a Justice Department intervention, Tulsa will get no credit for it. A modern victory of cooperative effort will have evaporated, replaced by stress, struggle, and bitterness. If more bodies aren’t found, the controversy will haunt the history books for the next one hundred years, just as Kavin Ross eloquently warned.[61] Either way, G. T. Bynum will be the leading candidate to enter those books as the leader who failed to do things “the right way.”

Even Tulsans who just want the entire graves matter over and done with have been harmed by the stonewalling and dismissive treatment of the Oversight Committee, the descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and every citizen of every race with a desire to learn the truth. The controversies will drag on, likely interminably. In the course of it, citizens of all races will be further divided and conquered.

The Phantom Decider has damaged everyone.

Epilogue

Any tiny hope that the investigators would return to unearth additional coffins from the Oaklawn mass grave was dismantled by mid-September when the City removed all the logistics and laboratory trailers. Two City of Tulsa advertising signs appended to the iron fence were left behind. The signs begin by publicizing Mayor G. T. Bynum’s 2018 investigation announcement and include the promise that the Public Oversight Committee will “ensure” transparency and community engagement. The signs conclude with the Committee’s “rule” requiring “respect for the deceased.” Apart from the advertising, the only visible demonstration that an excavation in Oaklawn had occurred are the tire tracks stamped into the soil atop the City of Tulsa’s recreated mass grave.[62]


A sign near the site of reinternment at Oaklawn Cemetary. Photo by Stuart Hetherwood/Well-Told, LLC.

A sign near the site of reinternment at Oaklawn Cemetary. Photo by Stuart Hetherwood/Well-Told, LLC.

Acknowledgments

When asked to comment on this story, Michelle Brooks, City of Tulsa Director of Communications, provided this statement: “The City is committed to the 1921 Graves Investigation and will continue working with the Public Oversight Committee through the investigation. The City is currently working to secure a company to begin the DNA portion of this investigation and we also expect the formal report for the June excavation to be complete and presented to the Public Oversight Committee by the end of the year.”

Disclosures


In addition to being a member of the 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee, Chief Egunwale Amusan is also a Board of Directors member for Center For Public Secrets.


Endnotes: [1] For “colored” potter’s field, see the Oaklawn plot map. [2] There is some uncertainty as to the total number of burials discovered. Dr. Kary Stackelbeck, State Archeologist, reported that there were thirty-four burials, with fourteen adult caskets and six infant/children caskets disinterred. Fourteen were left in place. One of the disinterred infant caskets was found to contain no remains. Thus, a total of nineteen human remains were transferred to the laboratory for study and later reinterred on July 30, 2021. July 27, 2021 Public Oversight Committee private briefing, 1:50 to 2:25. For video of the July 27, 2021 private briefing. Various media reports claimed that thirty-five caskets were discovered. For purposes of this paper, Dr. Stackelbeck’s July 27, 2021 summary of thirty-four burials, one discovered to be a vacant casket, will be used. [3] The reference to a pregnant woman is drawn from an interview with Public Oversight Committee member Kristi Williams on September 7, 2021. As noted in endnote 2, one of the twenty disinterred coffins was found to contain no remains. [4] See authorities and evidence cited in Randy Hopkins,”The Plot to Kill 'Diamond Dick Rowland' and the Tulsa Race Massacre” https://www.centerforpublicsecrets.org/the-trail-of-atrocity. The paper will also be published by the Oklahoma Historical Society in a forthcoming issue of The Chronicles of Oklahoma. [5] For a description of the reparations plan, see “Niles Blames Lawlessness for Race War,” Tulsa Tribune, June 2, 1921, 4 (Niles calls it a “plan of reparation in order that homes may be rebuilt and families as nearly as possible be rehabilitated” and “as quickly as possible rehabilitation will take place and reparation made.”). Also see, “Reparations Commission” Aiding Homeless Negroes,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, June 3, 1921, 1. [6] See news headlines and articles cited in Randy Hopkins, “Mask of Atonement: The Plan to Rebuild the Homes of Greenwood,” https://www.centerforpublicsecrets.org/post/mask-of-atonement-the-plan-to-rebuild-the-homes-of-greenwood [7] “Tulsa in Remorse to Rebuild Homes; Dead Now Put at 30,” New York Times, June 2, 1921, 1. [8] For Bynum’s promises and commitments, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pjua7e9UDo. For the video of the entire July 2019 meeting, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QN62XmWLZc. [9] For evidence and authorities cited in this section, see Randy Hopkins, “Mask of Atonement: The Plan to Rebuild the Homes of Greenwood” https://www.centerforpublicsecrets.org/post/mask-of-atonement-the-plan-to-rebuild-the-homes-of-greenwood [10] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight Committee private briefing, 29:50 to 37:00, 41:40 to 42:40 (discussion between Oversight Committee members Amusan and Regina Goodwin, Mayor Bynum’s Deputy Chief of Staff Rodrigo Rojas and Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield of the City’s Physical Investigation Committee regarding whether Oaklawn was a crime scene, the lack of living perpetrators and the absence of criminal investigators). [11] For Bynum’s promises and commitments, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pjua7e9UDo. [12] “A white Republican mayor seeks the truth about Tulsa’s race massacre a century ago,” Washington Post, March 13, 2020. [13] For Kellough’s presentation, see May 17, 2021 Public Oversight Committee public meeting at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdoOnzVInuE. Videos of this and other public meetings are contained in the City of Tulsa’s 1921 Graves Investigation webpage located at https://www.cityoftulsa.org/government/mayor-of-tulsa/1921-graves-investigation/committee-meetings-and-members/ [14] See the discussions cited in endnote 10 above. [15] For discussion of how many burials, coffins and remain were discovered and handled, see endnote 2 above. [16] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight Committee private briefing, 53:00 to 54:05. (Dr. Stubblefield). [17] Again, one of the extracted coffins was found to contain no remains, meaning that only nineteen sets of remains were later reinterred. [18] January 28, 2021 Public Oversight Committee Meeting, 1:31:50 to 1:33:20 (Dr. Stackelbeck). [19] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight Committee private briefing, 51:40 to 55:10. (Dr. Stubblefield, “This whole investigation targeted plain casketed individuals.”); 55:10 to 57:20 (commentary by Amusan that fact that findings do not match pre-set “target” is no reason to stop digging once more coffins in a mass grave are discovered). Compounding the confusion over the decision to leave fourteen in the ground, the Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Rojas explained in an email to the Oversight Committee that some of the “nicer coffins” were in fact exhumed. Why some and not the others? [20] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:14 (Dr. Stackelbeck re: shipping crate). [21] March 23, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 41:00 to 43:30 (including per 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…”). [22] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:06:00 to 1:06:30 (discussion by Dr. Stubblefield, including, “I do have a target of eighteen Black males and it is more efficient and just reasonable to expose burials that belong to those plain casketed individuals and not those individuals that are in fancy caskets.”). [23] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:03 (Amusan) [24] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 50:20 to 51:36, 1:03:05 to 1:04:50) (Amusan). Notwithstanding the new target of Black males, some female and infant-bearing coffins were extracted, adding yet more confusion to the decision to leave fourteen in place. As with the “fancy coffin” explanation, the actual practice only raised more unanswered questions. [25] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:44:25 to 1:46:15 (including per Amusan, “…on top of that, you have fourteen remains that were not exhumed. We are just completely discounting fourteen remains for whatever reason and they are going to get covered up and buried and it doesn’t match what the Mayor said we are going to do, which is that we are going to do everything in our power to find out who these people are…we keep revisiting this trauma and doing this incomplete search and that to me seems a waste of time and a waste of effort and for the next hundred years you’ll be questioning who these other fourteen were…Who made the decision to stop?… Who made that decision to stop and to conclude the dig?” To which, Dr. Stubblefield replied, “Yeah, I have no information for you on that.”). [26] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:33:05 to 2:34:10. [27] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:37:45 to 2:38:30 (responding to Committee chair Kavin Ross’ advocacy of reburying in above-the-flood line Sexton vs. the “mud pit,” Dr. Stubblefield said, “That’s actually not a bad idea. I wish we had a cemetery representative on hand….Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s not a bad idea. I say that in the context that I have real concerns…We are using airtight vaults because we want them to stay airtight, but our excavation area has a creek through it, underneath, and maybe through it. It fills up readily. I am really worried that they won’t stay there. But I’m not, I don’t build cemeteries so I have to yield to my own ignorance. We don’t have a cemetery representative on this call, but, yeah, you raise a valid call.”) (emphasis by Dr. Stubblefield). [28] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:34:30 to 2:36:10 (Dr. Stackelbeck). [29] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:36:10 to 2:44:25. (Includes several statements by Chair Ross interspersed with comments of others). [30] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight Committee private briefing, 49:40 to 50:20 (includes Dr. Stackelbeck, “There is a possibility that we could return and disinter these other individuals if we feel a compelling reason to do so…”). [31] For video of the July 27, 2021 private briefing, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_39KeR1rO2o. The City’s Mass Investigation webpage concerning Oversight Committee meetings is located at https://www.cityoftulsa.org/government/mayor-of-tulsa/1921-graves-investigation/committee-meetings-and-members/ [32] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private meeting, 1:50:50 to 1:51:08; 2:13:45 to 2:14:20. [33] July 27, 2021 private briefing, 1:55:50 to 2:06:30 (extended exchange between Regina Goodwin and the Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Rojas); 2:09:40 to 2:12:45 (includes Chair Kavin Ross, “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.”) (emphasis by Ross). [34] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private meeting, 1:39:50 to 1:42:06 (Regina Goodwin asks, “Why are we putting them back in the ground Friday?” In response, Deputy Chief of Staff Rojas said, “Well, I’ll say, Regina, that when we did put in the request to get approval from the state to start excavation this summer, we needed a reinterment plan and as you may recall I want to say probably in February or in March we made a decision to temporarily reinter all of the individuals back into Oaklawn after the excavation was over.”); 1:51:08 to 1:53:18 (includes Deputy Chief of Staff Rojas, “In terms of the reinterment and for the reburial on this upcoming Friday, that decision was made as we paused, again that goes back to what we discussed in the spring…”). [35] The re-interment plan is available at https://www.cityoftulsa.org/media/15407/oversight-committee-meeting-slides-1-28-21.pdf. [36] For prior consultations, see January 28, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 11:00 to 11:54 (Deputy Mayor Brown). For Brown’s representation, see January 28, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 26:40 to 27:55. [37] https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Descendants-of-Tulsa-Race-Massacre-victims-16359958.php [38] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:57:00 to 2:58:45 (Dr. Stubblefield). [39] https://www.cityoftulsa.org/media/15407/oversight-committee-meeting-slides-1-28-21.pdf [40] January 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:47:25 to 1:48:00 (Dr. Stubblefield said, “I did not make the timeline of the ceremony.”); 1:50:50 to 1:55:48 (includes Amusan saying, “We agreed that we would do temporary interment at the conclusion of the dig. I know what the word conclusion means. But you didn’t define who made the decision to stop this dig. If it is a pause, we don’t need to do a commemoration on Friday, right, if we are pausing this work… Somebody made a decision without our input. Somebody made a decision to stop and somebody made a decision to reinter without our input.” After Amusan again asked who made the decision, Deputy Chief of Staff Rojas said, “The decision was made essentially by the teams that were on the ground, Cardno and the City of Tulsa,” to which Amusan responded, ”But Phoebe just said she didn’t make the decision, so that can’t be the case.”) ; 2:33:00 to 2:34:05. See also, endnotes 25 and 26 and related text for more quotations on the decision to stop the dig. [41] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:29:15 to 2:34:15; 2:34:45 to 2:46:00; 2:47:30 to 2:56:00. [42] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:34:45 to 2:46:00; 2:47:30 to 2:56:00. See also quotations in endnotes 27, 28, and 29 and related text on the flooding issue. [43] February 23, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 29:30 to 30:45; 33:57 to 35:30. [44] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:34:45 to 2:46:00; 2:47:30 to 2:56:00. See also quotations in endnotes 27, 28, and 29 and related text on the flooding issue. [45] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:34:45 to 2:46:00; 2:47:30 to 2:56:00. Moving the caskets to Sexton would allow the pit of the graves to be filled with dirt, thus minimizing the “swimming pool” problem, as Dr. Stackelbeck noted.

[46] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:29:15 to 2:34:15. (Dr. Stubblefield said, “I would appreciate a recommendation from the Public Oversight Committee. What I’m hearing from you is that we should not be having a commemoration and I am concerned to yield to your decision. I agree that there is a bad perception. I share your sentiment that we found something interesting, then almost immediately stopped…I can’t answer your question about who gave the order. I don’t have that knowledge. But I can accept your recommendation about being open to the public (with) going forward Friday or not.”) After the reburial, an article in the Tulsa World described Dr. Stubblefield as saying there was no reason to keep the remains above ground while DNA and “other data” were being analyzed. The City, in the same article, continued to blame the team on the ground for the reburial decision. Nonetheless, Dr. Stubblefield expressly joined with the Committee in asking for a delay of the reburial and a consideration of the Sexton location — actions that would have avoided the traumatic events of July 30. Whatever Dr. Stubblefield’s preferences on reburial in general, such action also was precluded by the re-interment plan which first required a determination of whether the remains were Massacre victims and the completion of forensic analysis. https://tulsaworld.com/news/local/racemassacre/critics-air-grievances-over-reinterment-of-possible-tulsa-race-massacre-burials/article_38dc20b6-f56d-11eb-a3ef-1b4d213a70c5.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=user-share [47] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:56:00 to 2:57:30. [48] On August 2, 2021, the Mayor’s deputy sent a long email to the Oversight Committee. It was largely bureaucratic busywork that created the mere appearance of substance. Most of it was just a link to videos of prior Oversight meetings that the members already possessed. It was condescending in treating the Committee like children who could not remember the events through which they had already lived. [49] “Watch Now: Exhumed remains reburied at Oaklawn amid protests from Greenwood descendants,” Tulsa World, July 30, 2021, updated Sep. 6, 2021, at https://tulsaworld.com/news/local/racemassacre/watch-now-exhumed-remains-reburied-at-oaklawn-amid-protests-from-greenwood-descendants/article_3b04fb58-f08e-11eb-95c1-d78bc2d50b27.html; “Descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre victims protest reburial of mass grave remains,” Washington Post, August 3, 2021, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/08/03/tulsa-mass-grave-reburial-protest/ [50] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:49:15 to 1:50:50. [51] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/08/03/tulsa-mass-grave-reburial-protest/; https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Descendants-of-Tulsa-Race-Massacre-victims-16359958.php [52] Oklahoma Statutes Title 63. Public Health and Safety, Sec. 63-1-319, https://www.ok.gov/health2/documents/Title%2063%2011-1-19.pdf.The re-interment plan, presented in January 2021, debated in February, and approved in March is available at https://www.cityoftulsa.org/media/15407/oversight-committee-meeting-slides-1-28-21.pdf. [53] Even if a permit to disinter had been requested and granted, there is nothing in the statute or the permit form that would have imposed a July 30 deadline. Thus, the Mayor’s press release was misleading at multiple levels. Oklahoma Statutes Title 63. Public Health and Safety, Sec. 63-1-319, https://www.ok.gov/health2/documents/Title%2063%2011-1-19.pdf. The Mayor’s press representative also leveraged the permit alibi by emphasizing that it was “filed” with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. Sending something to the District Attorney had absolutely no legal significance. It was equivalent to saying “we put something in a file cabinet.” [54] Oklahoma Statutes Title 63. Public Health and Safety, Sec. 63-1-319 (D). [55] https://oklahoma.gov/health/birth-and-death-certificates/birth-and-death-registration-rover/disinterments.html [56] For prior consultations, see January 28, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 11:00 to 11:54. For Brown’s representation, see January 28, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 26:40 to 27:55. [57] February 23, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 1:31:20 to 1:33:32 (Bynun speaks). [58] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 2:29:15 to 2:33:07. [59] July 27, 2021 Public Oversight private briefing, 1:55:50 to 1:59:45. [60] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/08/18/doj-tulsa-mass-graves-race-massacre/ [61] February 23, 2021 Public Oversight public meeting, 1:46:25 to 1:47:05 (Ross said, “My main concern is…if anything that should stand up in this whole deal is that we sit on the right side of history this time. For the next hundred years, what we do now, what we say now will haunt the history books. Good or bad.”). Hopefully, it’s not too late for the good to replace the bad, which for the moment reigns triumphant. [62] I would like to thank Mark Singer, journalist extraordinaire, for editing this paper and helping to see it through to conclusion. To the gang at the Center for Public Secrets, thanks for all your help and being such a consistent pleasure with which to work. Any mistakes or errors are all mine.