DNA samples being taken for Tulsa Race Massacre grave identification

New technology can allow the Tulsa Race Massacre victims to be identified, but could be at the expense of other’s privacy.

Once referred to as “Tulsa’s dirty secret” by Sen. Kevin Matthews, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre has been an incident of our city’s history often pushed under the rug. Approximately 35 square blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known then colloquially as “Black Wall Street” was destroyed in one of the worst instances of racial violence ever to take place in the United States. After the riots, tens of thousands of black Tulsans were left homeless, and Greenwood suffered over $35 million in property damage.

Unfortunately, what followed then was decades of secrecy with the event rarely being acknowledged in local and state history. Part of the hasty cover-up efforts included burying massacre victims in unmarked mass graves. These mass graves have become a point of contention as local interest has risen in the event. This rise in interest has also given way to controversy about how to deal with such an atrocity more than 100 years later.

One of the most recent controversial projects is the city of Tulsa’s recent efforts to investigate three potential sites they believe to be the mass graves containing massacre victims’ bodies. While the investigation that uncovered the potential sites originally took place in the late 90’s, various factors delayed it until Mayor G.T. Bynum launched his own in 2019. This more recent iteration of the research has recently come under scrutiny due to the usage of donated DNA samples from the Greenwood community to trace descendants of the victims found in these graves.

The most vocal critic so far has been the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, a network of various experts and volunteers who advocate for justice for Massacre survivors and reparations for their descendants and the present-day Greenwood community. The foundation has raised valid concerns regarding privacy and unforeseen repercussions DNA contributors could face after providing such sensitive information. The foundation’s legal team has branded the undertaking as “dangerous” and “reckless” due to a lack of privacy protections in place for the database of DNA collected. One issue that comes to mind is how such a database could be used by police due to the fact that it will comprise black Tulsans’ genetic family trees, a group that already faces disproportionate targeting by law enforcement. The city of Tulsa has responded to these criticisms by clearing the air about how exactly it will be handling the collecting of DNA, which are third-party databases (i.e., Ancestry.com, 23AndMe). Unfortunately, these third-party entities have already come under fire themselves for providing data to law enforcement to solve difficult cases, such as in the case of the Golden State Killer.

Taking into consideration that Greenwood residents have had to wait over 100 years to receive answers about the victims buried in mass graves, it’s no surprise they are hesitant to trust the city of Tulsa’s efforts now. Ultimately, Black Tulsans are being urged not to submit DNA, with the only response from the 1921 Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee so far being a meeting that will take place on September 13 to discuss the process of DNA analysis on victims’ remains.

Post Author: Erica Herrera