A group of survivors and descendants of victims of the racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have asked the Justice Department to take over the search for mass graves of black residents who died in the 1921 disaster.
The group, Justice for Greenwood, said it did not trust city officials to lead the search for the graves or handle any remains.
“To ensure that the deaths of the victims of the massacre whose remains have been found are properly and thoroughly investigated, we call on the Justice Department to act as a neutral outside investigator and take over the search the group said in a statement. letter signed by the three surviving victims of the massacre, as well as state legislators and community and city leaders.
The Justice Department must investigate and provide “answers and findings that the survivors of the massacre and their descendants, and the rest of the public, can trust,” they said in the letter, dated Friday.
A spokeswoman said the Justice Department had received the letter but declined to comment.
The city has worked with archaeologists and forensic anthropologists to search and identify the remains.
As many as 300 people died in the disaster, which was led by white looters who set fire to the businesses and homes of black residents in the Greenwood neighborhood in June 1921. Greenwood, then a thriving business district, included some 40 blocks of restaurants, hotels, and theaters owned and run by black entrepreneurs. The mob destroyed it in less than 24 hours.
A spokeswoman for the city of Tulsa declined to comment on the letter because members of Justice for Greenwood have an pending lawsuit against the city seeking compensation for the losses suffered by descendants of the victims and survivors.
In 2018, Mayor GT Bynum announced that the city would conduct a search for bodies, focusing on four sites, including Oaklawn Cemetery, that had been identified as potential sites of the victims’ mass graves.
“The only way to make progress in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is to honestly seek the truth,” said Mr. Bynum in a statement on the city’s website. “We are committed to investigating what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process.”
The authors of the letter to the Department of Justice claimed that some of those involved in the search, whom they did not name, were the descendants of people who “both encouraged and actively participated in the violence that led Greenwood in 1921 in the first place.” destroyed.”
“The city has a clear conflict of interest,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, the executive director of justice for Greenwood. “We don’t believe the city has the moral authority or desire to do the right thing in this situation.”
Mr. Solomon-Simmons, a lawyer, represents the three survivors and descendants of the victims in the lawsuit.
The massacre followed a chance meeting between two teenagers: Dick Rowland, 19, a black shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, 17, a white elevator operator. mr. Rowland entered the elevator on May 31, 1921. A scream was heard from within, and Mr. Rowland fled.
Charged with sexually assaulting Ms. Page, he was arrested that morning and jailed at the Tulsa County courthouse. A large group of armed black people, fearful that Mr. Rowland would be lynched, rushed to the courthouse to ensure his safety.
The charges against Mr. Rowland were later dropped, and authorities eventually concluded that he most likely stumbled and stepped on Ms. Page’s foot, according to a 2001 report from the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
But on June 1, the day after the arrest, a large mob of white Tulsans had set fire to businesses in Greenwood. People were killed in the street or just disappeared.
No one has ever been charged. In the years and decades following the massacre, the city and the Chamber of Commerce tried to cover it up, twisting the story to present black residents as the violent instigators.
In June, Kary Stackelbeck, the state archaeologist, led a team that uncovered more than 30 unmarked graves in the Oaklawn cemetery.
At a press conference that month, she told reporters there was no data or documentation to identify the bodies.
Nineteen bodies were considered viable enough for forensic analysis, she said.
During the same press conference, Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist, said only one of the bodies examined showed signs of trauma: a black man who was found with a bullet in his shoulder.
She said the analysis of the bodies was preliminary and a final report would eventually be presented to the city’s public oversight committee at a public meeting.
dr. Stubblefield said the process of identifying the bodies or figuring out when and how they died was largely complicated because there was no information about them.
“It’s a difficult project,” said Dr. Stubblefield, adding that the part of the cemetery where the bodies were found was “shockingly underdocumented”.
The body of the man found with the bullet was well preserved, she said, but the remains of the other bodies examined were “brittle and disintegrating,” making it difficult to determine signs of trauma.
The city reburied the bodies after the analysis, much to the anger of the survivors and the descendants of the victims, Mr Solomon-Simmons said.
“None of those bodies have been properly identified,” he said. “That’s part of the uproar.”
In a letter to the city council, Mr Bynum said the bodies had been “temporarily” reburied as part of a plan approved and discussed in public meetings before the excavation began.
He said the goal was to determine if any of the remains belonged to the victims of the massacre, a process that could take years, and to find available DNA to link the remains to descendants.
“Since we started this process a few years ago, we’ve been clear that the city of Tulsa is in this for the long haul,” said Mr. Bynum. “If you’re looking for victims nearly a century after they’re buried, there are no quick and easy answers.”