One day in, and dissatisfaction is surfacing about the search for unknown burial sites from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre.
Several members of the project’s public oversight committee held an impromptu news conference at Oaklawn Cemetery on Monday afternoon to ask why the Oklahoma Archeology Survey has not been asked to look under the Inner Dispersal Loop for the remains of people killed in the racial violence of May 31-June 1, 1921.
The OAS team began subsurface scans Monday of three areas inside Oaklawn identified by historians and researchers as among the most likely spots to look. Plans also call for scanning in and around Newblock Park, 1414 W. Charles Page Avenue, and possibly in and around Rolling Oaks Cemetery in south Tulsa.
Mayor G.T. Bynum said the current schedule “is a start” and promised to “throw everything at (the search), technologically.”
A few minutes earlier, members of the oversight committee, including Pastor Robert Turner, state Rep. Regina Goodwin and Chief Egunwale Amusan said they were concerned that the team was not asked to look under the IDL.
“We have heard from too many witnesses, and there is too much oral history” to ignore, said Goodwin, who would also like an examination of Crown Hill Cemetery, 4301 E. 66th St. North.
Records show that a sliver of Oaklawn — about a tenth of an acre — was sold to the state for the Inner Dispersal Loop, which was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the highway sits atop an old railroad right-of-way, and Goodwin and the others said they’ve been told bodies were brought to Oaklawn on rail cars and “rolled” into a trench on the west edge of the cemetery.
The group said they appreciate the efforts of the OAS team but questioned why the site being examined Monday was chosen.
Located inside the present western boundary of the cemetery, the area is noticeably void of grave markers in an otherwise nearly full cemetery. Officials said people who had previously worked in the cemetery believed black victims of the massacre were buried there.
Funeral home records and news reports from the time indicate that at least 18 of the bodies were buried in Oaklawn, but their locations are not known. A news story said 13 bodies were buried “separately and in plain caskets,” but some question whether that was actually the case.
Two markers for known dead are nearby, but only one appears to mark an actual grave, officials said.
One of those watching Monday’s proceedings, Eugene Martin of Tulsa, said family lore holds that his great uncle Bob Perryman was killed in the massacre and buried at Oaklawn.
“My family always talked about him being in here,” said Martin.
“I appreciate the effort to get to the truth,” he said. “If they’re successful in this cemetery, it will verify the family story. We were told he was put on a truck and dumped in a mass grave at Oaklawn.”
The scanning crew intends to survey an area identified in 1999 as a potential site, as well as a location near the cemetery entrance.
The scientists are using three types of scanning equipment in their search. OAS senior researcher Scott Hammerstedt, who is supervising the work, said it will likely be several weeks after the scans are completed before a thorough analysis of the data can be finished.
“Even if I think we have something, I probably won’t come right out and say it until I’m certain,” Hammerstedt said.
Bynum, who initiated the search, urged patience.
“We have to be very careful to take this one step at a time,” he said. “Some people say we’re opening a wound, but the wound has always been there.