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Justice for Greenwood requests federal civil rights investigation into city's mass graves search
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Justice for Greenwood requests federal civil rights investigation into city's mass graves search

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Kavin Ross, 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee chair, views coffins before they are covered in a mass grave at Oaklawn Cemetery in July. The remains were reintered after forensic examination in the search for graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

A Tulsa-based advocacy group has asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the city of Tulsa’s handling of its search for mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Justice for Greenwood sent a letter dated Aug. 13 to the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice requesting the probe, according to a news release.

The letter, signed by Justice for Greenwood founder and Executive Director Damario Solomon-Simmons, asks the DOJ to “bring the integrity of the federal government to Tulsa to help heal these century-old wounds by conducting a meaningful and objective investigation into the Massacre and answering questions that have long gone unresolved.”

A Tulsa attorney, Solomon-Simmons represents three centenarian survivors who have sued the city and others for restitution. The lawsuit asks for cash payments and other forms of reparations, including several similar to those sought by the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

Specifically, the letter seeks DOJ intervention into the mass graves search because:

“The city perpetuated the massacre and then led the cover up of the massacre for 75 years.”

The graves are a crime scene and the city of Tulsa should not be investigating something it helped perpetuate.

An intervention would “represent one step toward the Biden Administration’s objective of advancing racial justice in equity in America.”

The city abruptly reburied the bodies (exhumed earlier at the Oaklawn Cemetery) on July 30 over the objections of Massacre survivors, descendants and the community-led Tulsa Mass Graves Public Oversight Committee.

The group seeks the investigation under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 and its reauthorization in 2016.

The law permits the investigation and prosecution of criminal civil rights statutes violations that occurred before 1980 and resulted in a death.

The letter to the DOJ was signed by 23 people, including the three centenarian massacre survivors, Lessie Benningfield Randel, Viola Ford Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis.

State Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, and Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall Harper are also among those who signed the letter.

A spokesperson for the DOJ could not be reached for comment on the request.

Solomon-Simmons also could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the city of Tulsa declined to comment on the DOJ request, citing the city’s ongoing litigation.

Mayor G.T. Bynum’s office has previously said the reinterment of the remains was necessary under the conditions of its license to exhume them.

Since its passage in 2007, the Emmett Till Act has resulted in just a handful of prosecutions, according to a March 2021-dated report released by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.

The report outlines various obstacles to obtaining a conviction in a cold case, especially those with dated evidence such as from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“Even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and rarely will justice be reached inside of a courtroom,” the report states.

The number of people killed in the massacre has been disputed for the past century. A search of death certificates about 20 years ago identified 37 connected to the massacre, but reports of many more deaths surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the events, with estimates ranging from 50 to 500.

Featured video: 19 sets of remains exhumed from mass grave at Oaklawn Cemetery

Oaklawn search ends with exhumation of 19 sets of remains; at least one bears signs of violence. The mass grave was fround while searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

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