How the reinterment of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre murder victims served as the final act of the city’s public disregard for Black bodies
The impassioned voices of those featured in OAKLAWN reveal what may only be perceived as a failing confidence in Tulsa’s commitment to “reconciliation,” and most accurately depicts the city of Tulsa’s 1921 Graves Investigation committee as being a source for nothing more than feel-good public pronouncements and lacking a willingness to aggressively employ all available investigative resources and the requisite statutory transparency.
Perhaps most significant was the analysis offered by Chief Egunwale Fagbenro Amusan, a descendent of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and OAKLAWN contributing voice, who offered a pointed critique of the city of Tulsa’s decision to reinter Race Massacre victims where they were publicly slain by a white mob then cast into mass graves now uncovered in Oaklawn Cemetery, husband upon wife, mother upon child and brother upon sister.
Amusan shared, during the Nov. 12 premier of OAKLAWN, at The Center for Public Secrets, that an honorable and certainly more humane alternative, the reinterment of the slain within a grave not dug in haste by the men responsible for the murders, was not a cause championed by the investigation body, instead, the bodies were simply placed back beneath the soil that was once bound by the blood of the innocent.
Amusan’s engagement with the audience first compelled them to consider the mass murders of Jewish prisoners from June 1941 until the spring of 1943 in the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany Third Reich mobile killing units. The OAKLAWN audience was then asked if the descendants of the slain innocent Jewish men, women and children would accept the same interment fate as the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The response from the screening audience was not merely unanimous but sparked an open discussion as to why the city of Tulsa, the city of Tulsa’s 1921 Graves Investigation committee, Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum, the Oklahoma legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt would accept the less than honorable fate for the victims of the Race Massacre.
In the decades that followed the unprecedented atrocities committed against the Jewish peoples of Europe during World War II, organizations advanced several formal efforts to “reconcile” the heritage of now Jewish Americans and the plague of Third Reich’s historic violence.
Members of the Jewish community recognized the stark indignity of the posthumous treatment of those murdered several decades earlier. Men, women and children who could no longer burden the trauma of torture and forced labor, felled where they stood.
Toward the end of World War II, primarily after the summer/autumn of 1944, death marches, forced transfers of prisoners from one Nazi Germany camp to other locations across long distances resulted in numerous deaths of weakened people.
Hundreds of thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews, from Nazi Germany camps near the Eastern Front were moved to camps inside Germany away from the Allied forces. Their purpose was to continue the use of prisoners’ slave labor, to remove evidence of crimes against humanity, and to keep the prisoners from bargaining with the Allies.
Globally, the concerns of Jewish communities regarding the dignity of those who were slain by Nazi Germany in the 1940s evolved, yielded formal campaigns and the creation of organized bodies that advocated on behalf of those were so violently murdered.
The U.S., then home to many Jewish Americans, established the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad in 1985. The independent agency’s charter was to identify and report on cemeteries, monuments and historic buildings in Eastern and Central Europe that are associated with the heritage of U.S. citizens, particularly endangered properties.
The U.S. declared, during its formation of the commission, that “because the fabric of a society is strengthened by visible reminders of the historical roots of the society, it is in the national interest to encourage the preservation and protection of the cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings associated with the foreign heritage of United States citizens.”
In September 2009, the “Dignity Return” project, organized by Yuri Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, in cooperation with Rabbi Marc Schneier, chairman of the World Jewish Congress American Section, championed an effort to bury the remains of victims of mass execution from Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and Estonia in a manner acceptable under Jewish law.
The communities’ work has been unending, formally documenting the stories of those who witnessed, and participated in the murder of innocent.
Tulsans, many of whom are descendants of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, who lived well-beyond the theaters of WWI and WWII, are equally deserving of such honor, care, and regard. The Center for Public Secrets’ effort, in OAKLAWN, makes this point clear.
In 2018, Bynum announced the city of Tulsa would reexamine the potential of graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as identified in the 2001 “Tulsa Race Riot: A report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Four sites were identified in the city’s examination: Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park, an additional area near Newblock Park and Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, formerly the Booker T. Washington Cemetery. The city established three goals around the reexamination, including: public oversight, historical context and the physical evidence investigation.
Twenty-six death certificates were issued in 1921 for African American victims of the Massacre; 21 of those victims were reportedly buried in Oaklawn Cemetery.
The chronology of events surrounding the ongoing years-long investigation, as detailed in OAKLAWN, is marked by closed-door meetings, perceived delayed progress, a cloak of silence with regard to information shared with the Public Oversight Committee and a growing sense that city of Tulsa officials are not committed to the “reconciliation” stated by Bynum during the formation of the city of Tulsa’s 1921 Graves investigative body.
The Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, through the use of ground penetrating radar, identified anomalies at two areas of Oaklawn Cemetery, specifically the Sexton area and the “Original 18” site.
DeNeen Brown, Washington Post staff writer, captured the history of the “Original 18” in October 2020, revealing the details of a “nearly century-old funeral home ledger” that listed 18 Black people who were killed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The ledger, one of few paper documents that survived the massacre, wasn’t discovered until 1998. Stanley McCune Mortuary, a white-owned funeral home in South Tulsa, would later submit a bill for the burial of 18 “Negroes” to Tulsa County just days after the massacre. McCune’s ledger and bill failed to detail where the bodies were buried.
City officials believed the 18 Black people listed on the funeral home ledger may be buried at the “Original 18” site in unmarked graves.
An initial “test excavation” was performed in July 2020, however, no human remains were found. The effort did yield debris and artifacts that dated back to the 1920s, according to Kary Stackelbeck, Oklahoma’s state archaeologist.
Months after the “test excavation,” in October 2020, a second excavation yielded the discovery of multiple coffins in the Sexton area of Oaklawn Cemetery. The remains were left undisturbed until city officials received permission from a judge to exhume them for forensic analysis.
In June 2021, excavations resumed, and 35 coffins in unmarked graves were discovered. The remains of 19 people were exhumed, taken to an on-site science lab for preliminary analysis.
State officials, at the time, said that preliminary analysis of nine of the human remains revealed that five were juveniles and four adults, ranging in age from 30s to their 40s.
None of the remains recovered were immediately identified or confirmed as victims of the Race Massacre.
Before month’s end the city of Tulsa abruptly ceased exhumations and moved forward with its reburial plan.
Kristi Williams, a member of the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee and a descendant of Massacre survivors, voiced the committee’s opposition to the city’s actions.
Williams cited the committee’s primary concerns as a failure to properly identify the exhumed and their families; engage the FBI to advance an investigation of the circumstances related to an exhumed body with bullet and trauma; allow for sufficient time to create programming for a reburial ceremony.
“The found remains – a skull with a bullet hole – that seems like you’re just beginning to get somewhere” in investigating the deaths, Public Oversight Committee member and Massacre descendant state Rep. Regina Goodwin told KJRH-TV.
Public Oversight Committee member Chief Amusan, and OAKLAWN contributor, accused officials of “a coverup.”
Bynum, according to Michelle Brooks, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, was obligated 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.”
Relying solely upon the narrowest context of the permit, Bynum ignored the Public Oversight Committee’s request to afford the deceased burials that are common to all Tulsan families. The mayor, OAKLAWN lays bare, stood firm in his decision to deny the deceased and their families the honor of a proper burial or ceremony.
Chief Amusan, and all Public Oversight Committee members, a fair representation of all Tulsans, sought nothing more than to provide the exhumed, and believed murdered, with a just acknowledgement of their humanity.
The denial of their humanity, on public display beneath the summer sun on July 30, appears to have been one event within a series of failures of the city’s moral character regarding the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, as depicted in OAKLAWN.
Tulsans and descendants of victims of the Race Massacre were not afforded the opportunity to craft markers to honor the lives of the slain.
No church would be allowed to offer prayer, their choirs’ praise or descendants’ stories of the legacies now realized, heard.
The Race Massacre victims are certainly not nameless, without identity or relationship with their communities. Brown revealed that the Stanley McCune Mortuary ledger included the names of Joseph Miller, a chauffeur who lived with his wife, Allie, on East Hillside Street.
Curly Nevesters Walker, the son of Napoleon Walker, lived with his wife, Myrtle, and they roomed at 307 and 1/2 North Elgin. Walker’s cause of death was noted as a gunshot wound.
John Wheeler, 63, a bank porter at First National Bank, lived at 405 North Elgin. Wheeler’s cause of death was noted as a gunshot wound.
Miller, Walker and Wheeler numbered three of the many hundreds of murdered Tulsans in 1921.
The lives of these men, and other victims, were seemingly worth less than the bullets that ripped through their bodies, the tools used to bludgeon their skulls and the makeshift coffins used to bind the secrets surrounding their deaths.
Bynum and Tulsa officials were well aware of the fates of these men, women and children, yet, neither provision nor honor were granted. The souls of the slain would be further tormented by the indifference of the city’s leaders.
Chief Amusan’s question to the film screening audience, if they employed an objective comparison of the city of Tulsa’s actions with those of other countries in pursuit of preserving the dignity of World War II mass murder victims, how would Tulsa be perceived, was not simply a rhetorical inquiry.
Bynum’s actions, viewed through the lens of historic precedent, may only be regarded as a matter of harsh indifference. A position that he, and the city of Tulsa maintain.
Such indifference, publicly reflected by the blatant disregard for the Black lives stolen more than 101 years ago, continues, as OAKLAWN explores. Tulsa native Randy Hopkins, a noted historian and key contributor to the film, detailed in a media communique published by The Oklahoma Eagle, that the city’s investigative body has failed to meet the statutory obligations defined by the state’s Open Meeting Act, denying the public access to information that must be shared with the public.
Closed-door discussions addressing the demand for a criminal investigation, interment plans for those who may be exhumed in the future and a community-led plan to engage living descendants continue.
The Public Oversight Committee, established to ensure transparency and community engagement throughout the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre investigation, find itself in a position of isolation, operating without the statutory compliance of its parent body and unable to provide Tulsans with a clear indication that the city’s commitment is being honored.
OAKLAWN bravely confronts city of Tulsa officials, Bynum and those who wasted few moments to offer public pronouncements to advance “reconciliation.”
The rejection of dignity and honor for the slain, posthumously, continues to be one of many weapons of choice for the righteous, who drape themselves with the virtues of religion, color blindness (“I don’t see the color of another’s skin) and civility.
City officials who awaken Sunday mornings and find their way to places of worship, familiar pews and engage in song throughout Tulsa, likely drive pass the grounds upon which Black men, women and children were murdered in 1921.
The willingness to drive upon roads that were at some point a sudden grave for the innocent, and not be compelled to fully champion justice, sadly explains the actions of Bynum and the city of Tulsa.
OAKLAWN reminds us, once again, that at some point Tulsa must truly lead an effort to “reconcile” its history. Today, it appears, its actions aren’t indicative of such leadership.