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.