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Tulsa continues to face racial disparities as search resumes for grave sites of massacre victims

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Tulsa continues to face racial disparities as search resumes for grave sites of massacre victims

Editor's note: In commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, The OU Daily Enterprise team has assembled five stories about the Greenwood District's past, present and future for our summer issue of the Crimson Quarterly magazine. Click below to read more.

For decades after the 1920s, even to self-described Oklahoma history buffs like current Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a nearly forgotten tragedy laid buried in the city’s collective memory — and as Bynum would discover, much to his horror, the city itself. 

A century later and after numerous roadblocks to continuing the investigation, Bynum, several OU archaeologists and national scholars hope to bring a measure of justice to the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre and their descendants by educating the public and memorializing those killed in the event.

Bynum, a Tulsa native, said he attended school in his home city until graduating from Cascia Hall in 1996. Despite years of education spent in the city whose residents witnessed and carried out one of the nation’s worst instances of racist violence, like many Tulsans, he’d never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until 2001, while at a town hall event for former Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune’s mayoral campaign.

“We were at a candidate forum debate in North Tulsa, and somebody at that said, ‘This part of our city is the only American city that's ever had bombs dropped on it by its own government,’” Bynum said. “I thought, ‘That's crazy, there's no way that there was a riot in Tulsa where bombs got dropped on people and I've never heard about this.’”

While the exact extent of aerial bombardment during the massacre is unclear, eyewitness accounts of the event and later examination of available sources indicate multiple aircraft — though if private or government owned is unclear — played a role in the massacre. Tulsa may have become the first U.S. city to be bombed from the air.

After further research, Bynum stumbled on the first mention he’d heard of the potential mass grave sites in the city.

When I learned right here in Oaklawn Cemetery there's believed to be a mass grave for the race massacre but no one's ever checked, again, I thought, ‘There's no way there's potentially a mass grave in the middle of our city and no one's bothered to see if it's really there or not,’” Bynum said.

Greenwood and Oaklawn map

A figure-ground map of Tulsa highlights the Oaklawn Cemetery excavation site in relation to Greenwood District.

“I can't imagine living in a city where you know that this disparity exists, and the city government isn't doing everything it can to address it.”

- G.T. Bynum, Tulsa mayor

In 2001, when Bynum was first learning about the event, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 had published its report on findings from geological surveys and other research in the area, hoping to uncover forgotten mass grave sites. 

Although geophysical surveys had been conducted into the late 1990s and early 2000s using  radar equipment to identify subterranean disturbances, Bynum said the city had not proceeded with further excavation of sites of interest. In 2010 Bynum made another push to continue the investigation.

“My colleague on the city council at the time, Jack Henderson … and I went to the mayor at the time (Dewey Bartlett Jr.) and presented all this and said, ‘We really think that the city ought to move ahead with this examination investigation,’” Bynum said. “The mayor would not move ahead with it. Under our form of government, only the mayor can direct city employees to do anything — city councilors can’t.”

This event — and the racial disparities seen in Tulsa that continued to grow after the massacre and through the 20th century — inspired Bynum to eventually run for mayor, he said. 

“There was an article written in the Tulsa World ... about how the life expectancy disparity between kids growing up in North Tulsa and kids growing up elsewhere in the city was 11 years.” Bynum said. “I can't imagine living in a city where you know that this disparity exists, and the city government isn't doing everything it can to address it.” 

After the meeting with Bartlett, Bynum said he and Henderson made a pledge to act on the previous investigation’s findings if they ever had the chance. After Bynum defeated Bartlett in the June 2016 mayoral elections, he was eventually able to follow through.

Kary Stackelbeck, Oklahoma state archaeologist and member of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey based at OU, said she was approached by the City of Tulsa in 2018 after Bynum reopened the investigation. The city sought to pick up where the previous investigation left off, Stackelbeck said, with most of the previous groups’ work focused on identifying sites of interest and performing preliminary geophysical surveys of the areas.

“Let's be better Tulsans than the ones in 1921.”

- Kavin Ross, descendant of a victim of the massacre

In February 2000, on the weekend before excavation was set to begin at the Oaklawn Cemetery site, Kavin Ross — a member of the 1921 Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee and a descendant of a victim of the massacre — said the dig was suddenly called off.

“We had a lot of media showing up here in Tulsa at that time,” Ross said. “We got the word that Sunday night the excavation had been canceled. We weren’t ever given any real good reason why the excavation was canceled. … A lot of people who were opponents of the research and the race riot commission, they took the opportunity (of the indefinite postponement) to try and kill it.”

Ross said some petitioned for the report to be completed before the commissions could move on with further excavations. After the report was published in 2001, however, the investigation did not continue.

Scott Ellsworth — a native Tulsan, a scholar on the Tulsa Race Massacre and member of the Physical Investigation Committee — said the original investigation he was also a part of was “caught up in the politics of the era.”

“I think it’s complicated. I think there were some people on the Riot Commission who just wanted to end all of this and end all the publicity to begin with. There were others who were of a conspiracy-minded bent — those who thought the (massacre) was a pre-planned attack, things that I just thought were out to lunch,” Ellsworth said. “There were some people who were angry (because) all the attention given to the mass graves took away from efforts to win reparations. So I think it was a combination of factors.”

Stackelbeck said the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey accepted Tulsa’s invitation to continue their work in 2019. Oklahoma Archaeological Survey Senior Researcher Scott Hammerstedt and Director Amanda Regnier undertook new geological survey work with ground-penetrating radar in July 2020 to identify anomalies — both at sites previously surveyed during the earlier investigation and at new sites identified in the 20-year interim period.

"That’s a form of reparation — to go back and give these folks a proper burial, a proper burial site, a place of dignity and celebrate their lives."

- Kavin Ross

One early obstacle, Hammerstedt said, was the loss of some geophysical survey data from the original investigation.

“We had the report that they'd wrote and an article that they wrote. The problem is that one of the lead people involved in that from OU passed away,” Hammerstedt said. “We don't have any of the raw data, but we have some of the reports to work on.”

Regnier and Hammerstedt

OU faculty members Amanda Regnier and Scott Hammerstedt are helping to find the location of lost mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Hammerstedt and Regnier helped survey the Oaklawn Cemetery site by collecting ground-penetrating radar images across the site.

“What we do with the ground-penetrating radar is collect data in sort of zig-zag patterns, about 50 centimeters apart,” Hammerstedt said. “If you see a little anomaly that shows up in one profile, you might think it might be just to be a rock or something like that. But if you go through it and you pick it up in the same place on three or four passes, and it looks like it might be body size, for example, then that's kind of the kind of thing that clues you in.”

Leland Bement, senior researcher at the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, said scanning for anomalies is deceptively simple on the surface, as whether it is a thousand-year-old or hundred-year-old site, archaeologists can determine if earth has been disturbed by examining the natural layering of soil around the site.

While anomalies and at least a dozen coffins have already been identified at the Oaklawn Cemetery site, Stackelbeck said excavation and disinterment of any potential remains is not possible until a plan for reinterment is agreed on.

“First and foremost, if there are individuals (from the graves) who are identified, and if you have living descendants, then under state statute those living descendants would be the ones who would actually have the right to determine their ultimate resting place,” Stackelbeck said. “Right now, that is actually a point of discussion with members of the community and with the City of Tulsa to determine that reburial process.”

The Archaeological Survey has put forward a proposal to begin exhuming the remains by this summer, Stackelbeck said. A current “conservative” estimate of total individuals buried in the Oaklawn site is around 30 victims.

Bynum said a current leading solution is temporary reinterment in Oaklawn Cemetery to allow the Archaeological Survey’s work to continue at Oaklawn and other sites of interest before long-term memorialization is discussed with the community, adding it was “very important” for the city to begin excavation work this summer.

Bement said the team expects full skeletons to be recoverable from the gravesites. Remains roughly the age of the massacre sites are often in relatively good condition compared to many remains archaeologists work with, he said.

Identifying the individuals, though, is limited by the number of Tulsans willing to donate their DNA to match against DNA extracted from the remains, Stackelbeck said.

Ross said reparations will be a longer conversation, due to the role of the press and the city in covering up the event, but respecting the victims 100 years later is a proper place to start.  Ross is a descendant of a massacre victim — his great grandfather, Isaac Evitts, who owned Isaac Evitts’ Zulu Lounge in Greenwood before the massacre.

“Let's be better Tulsans than the ones in 1921,” Ross said. “Let us go back in time and reset. … That’s a form of reparation — to go back and give these folks a proper burial, a proper burial site, a place of dignity and (to) celebrate their lives. Not only are our children watching us on this historic year, (but) the world is (also) watching us to see exactly how we do this.”

Bynum said the city will have discussions with the Oversight Board and Tulsa residents as it decides where a memorial could potentially be placed.

“We were really, I think, probably one generation of historians and survivors removed from this potentially being completely erased.”

- G.T. Bynum

While not directly tied to reparations for the massacre, Bynum said he aims to address the wide racial disparities in Tulsa — particularly racial disparities “around economic opportunities” — by promoting economic development in North Tulsa, which contains roughly 41 percent of Tulsa’s Black population while only accounting for 17 percent of the city’s total population.

In all other areas of Tulsa, 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In North Tulsa, however, over 35 percent of residents live in poverty, according to Human Rights Watch. The poverty rate of Black Tulsans, 34 percent, is almost triple the 13 percent of white Tulsans below the poverty line.

The proposed body, the Tulsa Authority of Economic Opportunity, is intended to help institutionalize the initiative so the work can continue well through the end of Bynum’s mayoral term, he said — which is slated for 2024, as he’d previously stated he will not seek a third term. Other offices and plans created during his tenure, like the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity and the Resilient Tulsa Strategy, have similar goals.

During Bynum’s first term as mayor, he said Tulsa attracted over $1 billion to the North Tulsa area in corporate investment and job creation. However, he is cognizant of the need for nonprofit and small businesses to also flourish to help the area’s economic growth.

“We work with local nonprofits to make sure that people that live in the area are trained with the skills to compete for those (new) jobs and they don't just watch these buildings go up and people from other communities come in,” Bynum said. “We want to do more on the small business and entrepreneurial side. All of this is really targeted at building wealth in that area. If you can do that, it solves so many of the other problems that are leading to that life expectancy disparity.”

While the archaeologists said in many ways, the massacre excavations are simply another day of fieldwork and analysis, they rarely deal with excavations related to specific historical events. The relative recency of the massacre, and working alongside descendants of the victims, can be especially emotional.

“It's not to say that, as scientists, we're completely devoid of emotion when we do this. This can be definitely very emotional, and I would say absolutely … having members of the public Oversight Committee who are by our sides while we're doing this work and making these discoveries — it's extremely emotional,” Stackelbeck said. “It really brings home the importance of what it is that we're out there doing.”

Ross said while he is happy to see the work finally being pushed forward, he feels Tulsa was stalled on its way to becoming a better community when the original investigation was ended prematurely.

“Over 20 years ago, had we uncovered what we could have uncovered so far, how would Tulsa look as a people today, had we (taken) the necessary steps,” Ross said, “and returned to the past on our way to build a better future?”

With renewed efforts from state legislators and Tulsa Public Schools to ensure the accuracy of teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre, Bynum said he feels the centennial push to fully tell this tragic chapter of the city’s history may have lessons for future generations of Tulsans.

“I hate the fact that no one did this for 99 years. This should not be something that the City of Tulsa is doing now. It should have been done 100 years ago, and the fact that it wasn't is, I think, a great point of embarrassment for us as a city,” Bynum said. “You will not have kids growing up like I did, never hearing about this in school, ever again.”

How close he feels the city came to burying the tragedy, Bynum said, is an eerie reminder that serves as motivation for Tulsa and the United States to continue honestly confronting their racial history. 

“We were really, I think, probably one generation of historians and survivors removed from this potentially being completely erased,” Bynum said. “That you have every future generation of Tulsa kids that grows up learning the lessons of this event will hopefully build a better community and a better state as a result.”

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Blake Douglas joined the OU Daily news desk in October 2018, and is currently the news managing editor. Previously, Blake has served as an intern reporter, senior news reporter and summer news editor.

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