Confusion, Anger At Oaklawn Cemetery During Reburial Ceremony

Friday, July 30th 2021, 7:34 pm
By: Amy Slanchik, News On 6

TULSA, Oklahoma -

Some people protested Friday during a ceremony at Oaklawn Cemetery involving the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation. 

City employees and scientists worked to rebury the remains that were found in a mass grave now that the analysis is complete.  

A crowd gathered along the western side of the cemetery at the fence, confused and upset that the ceremony was closed to the public, and wondering why the individuals were being reburied at Oaklawn. 

The quiet ceremony, closed to the public inside Oaklawn Cemetery, was met with a loud reaction on the other side of the fence. 

It appeared a prayer was said as several people bowed their heads, but no one outside of the cemetery could hear what was said. Members of the Public Oversight Committee, along with city workers, scientists and historians were among the group.  

“Tell the truth! Quit telling lies!” a man yelled from the fence.  

"You are just burying their bodies right back up. This is a crime,” Celi Butler Davis said.  

The 19 individuals who were removed from the mass grave to be studied this summer are now back in the ground where they were found. It is possible they could be moved again in the future.  

"We should have been included,” Tulsa resident Heather Nash yelled. “We should have been able to stand on those graves and put our spirit in them with them in us."  

The Public Oversight Committee made the decision in March to temporarily put the remains back at Oaklawn, until work is complete. That includes determining whether these individuals are Race Massacre victims and doing DNA testing. 

Lead anthropologist Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield tried to calm tensions at the fence.  

"We don't have our people yet,” she said. “We don't have -- we've got one probable. Two suspiciously buried. And that still leaves 15. We're not done. We have not stopped." 

“The correct thing would have been, if they were gonna have a ceremony to notify the community that there was gonna be a ceremony and to do it the right way: with pomp and circumstance,” Tulsa resident Joyce G. Smith-Williams said.  

Braylon Dedmon came to the cemetery from Muskogee, he said, to offer his own tribute to the dead. He played several songs on his saxophone.  

"The souls that were a part of this process, they are a part of this historical process, and they deserve respect as well,” Descendent of race massacre survivors, Brenda Nails-Alford said.  

Scientists are still working on their final report and said they expect that to be done sometime this fall. Stubblefield already collected DNA samples from the remains studied this summer, to save for testing in the future. 

The City of Tulsa released this statement in response to the protest:  

“The City remains committed to transparency during this investigation and are focused on fulfilling our commitment to this phase of work that is still underway, as we have for the past two years of the investigation. The City of Tulsa moved forward with the reburial as planned today based on the proposal presented to the Public Oversight Committee and approved by the Committee on March 23, 2021, and as on-site forensic analysis, documentation and DNA sampling were complete. The City also 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, stating the remains would be temporarily interred at Oaklawn Cemetery (an interment plan was required before moving forward with the excavation.) This fall, research experts will report their findings from the excavation and their recommendations for next steps in the investigation.”