Who died in the Tulsa Race Massacre?

TULSA, Okla. — Jeanette Batchelor-Young had been searching for her roots for years when she received a message that would change what she knew about her origin story. There were still so many gaps in her family history: Batchelor-Young lived with her father until shortly after his death, and then she was adopted. She knew the name of his mother and grandmother but not much more.

The message came from a forensics lab, and revealed a twist in Batchelor-Young’s understanding of her paternal family’s journey from a small farming community in Texas to Northern California. It turns out that there was a stop — perhaps a very consequential stop — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1920s.

Batchelor-Young, 64, learned she may be a relative of one of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Her DNA matched remains exhumed from a local cemetery as part of the city’s effort to identify victims of the mob. to be identified by living relatives.

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“I’ve had so many questions about my family on my father’s side,” Batchelor-Young said. “I wanted to know more about who and where I am from.”

The massacre, among the most horrific racial attacks in American history, left the Greenwood area of ​​Tulsa, a Black neighborhood, in smoldering ruins. The death toll is estimated to be between 36 and 300. Many survivors scattered to parts unknown, bringing with them clues to living and dying in the vicinity.

Some of those killed after the mob were identified, but others were not. According to city officials, only 26 death certificates were issued in 1921 for the massacre, and newspaper reports from June of that year said 18 adult male victims were buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. The definitive death toll remains unknown, as rumors and reports of bodies being thrown down mine shafts or dumped into the Arkansas River have surfaced over the years.

More than a century later, many of the economic and social divides remain, along with a persistent, painful question: Who was lost in the massacre?

Years later, some answers may finally be revealed.

In 2020, the city began excavating a portion of Oaklawn where evidence of a mass grave site was discovered. It was a major step in solving a historical cold case, an ambitious mission that began with unmarked graves in a field that had once been a potter’s field, moved forward in time to the living, and traveled back in time to the dead.

Researchers are working to match DNA samples taken from the buried remains with those in two national DNA databases. They have now identified dozens of people who share the most DNA with the buried remains, all likely distant relatives, such as first cousins ​​or second cousins, multiple times removed. The best case scenario is a descendant like a grandchild.

“It’s finally a step forward to be able to link back to any of the burials, a concrete piece of information on a subject that has had no new information for a long time,” said Alison Wilde, the project’s genealogy case manager. . . “We’re talking about trying to get a name and a story of a real person that’s connected to someone living today.”

The investigation relies on science, records and family memories that are deteriorating and often uncertain. Investigators face an unknown world: more than a century, spotty documentation and several names (and different spellings) of victims and relatives. If researchers can make a positive identification using forensic genetic investigation methods, the process can be applied to other mass graves, said Danny Hellwig, director of lab development at Intermountain Forensics, the nonprofit lab working with him. the city to identify exhumed remains.

“We expect stories like, ‘I heard my mom talking about uncle so-and-so, and he was gone, and nobody ever heard from him again,'” said Wilde, who is also the director of. the genetic genealogy program at Intermountain Forensics. Once the remains are identified, “we would dive deep into that person’s life in hopes of answering the question: Was he or she alive after June 1, 1921?”

Last fall, researchers told Walter Richard Harrington II, a retired library employee who lives near Cleveland, that he had a DNA link to Burial 13, the ID for a woman’s remains, through his mother, whose name before Meadows’ marriage. There were no obvious gunshot wounds or signs of trauma present.

“As soon as I found out about the DNA match, I called the oldest person in the family, my 87-year-old cousin, who recalled that we had an aunt in Tulsa,” he said. “But she didn’t remember what happened to her. Hopefully we can dig more and find out.”

Last year, Mayor GT Bynum of Tulsa announced that the project, called the 1921 Graves investigation, had achieved a major scientific breakthrough. The exhumed remains of 22 people provided enough genetic material to create six DNA profiles that were traced to living relatives.

The investigation linked the DNA profiles to 19 possible surnames in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas. Families with matching surnames — and history in Tulsa — are asked to reach out to submit their DNA and share their stories.

This spring, just before the crowd’s 103rd anniversary, officials added two more profiles from previously exhumed burials. But they say they want more DNA from relatives.

Researchers warn that they are not yet sure if the remains belong to the victims of obesity. Either way, the identifications would advance investigations and offer clues to burial patterns at the cemetery.

Even if it’s a ‘natural death,’ these are individuals who have been lost to history, and they deserve to have their names back,” Hellwig said.

The Tulsa Race Massacre began on May 31, 1921, with a false accusation. White mobs stormed a courthouse where a young Black man was being held for allegedly assaulting a young white woman. The man was eventually cleared, but when the group of white men confronted a group of Black men, shots were fired, and a fight broke out, foreshadowing what was to come hours later.

The mob descended on Greenwood, a prosperous community known as Black Wall Street, and much of it was burned to the ground. In addition to the deaths, hundreds more were injured, and around 8,000 were left homeless.

After the massacre, Tulsa officials destroyed the historical record. Victims were buried in unmarked graves, and records were lost. For many of the families who lost loved ones that spring, there was little closure.

No one or entity has ever been held accountable for the deaths or destruction, although three centennial survivors filed a compensation lawsuit in 2020, arguing that the massacre created entrenched economic and social disparities. The Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed that suit in June.

For Batchelor-Young, who is biracial, searching her father’s Black side of the family yielded several clues before she was told she was related to Tulsa. She had already learned that the woman who adopted her was her paternal aunt. And she was already in touch with her white mother and knew a lot more about that side of her family.

Batchelor-Young’s father, Albert Williams, was born in Sealy, Texas, in 1907, served in the Army and worked at a service station in his later years. She learned her grandmother’s maiden name of Bremby.

It would be years before new information emerged, this time from the serious investigation. During a Zoom call in September, researchers told Batchelor-Young that his DNA and his father’s family history – the name Bremby and births in Austin County, Texas – matched burial 13.

Research is now focused on Batchelor-Young’s great-grandmother and great-aunts: three sisters – Annie, Lucy and Francis Bremby – who were all born in Texas in the mid-to-late 1800s. At least one of the sisters spent time in Tulsa.

For Batchelor-Young, any new details about her family history — whether or not they’re connected to the massacre — have a higher meaning.

“It gives me a sense of belonging,” she said, “with someone, somewhere.”

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