Who died in the Tulsa massacre?

TULSA, Okla. — Jeanette Batchelor-Young had been trying to trace her roots for years when she received a message that would change what she knew about her heritage. There were still so many gaps in her family history: Batchelor-Young had lived with her father briefly until his death, and then she was adopted. She knew the names of his mother and grandmother, but little else.

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 Texas farming community to Northern California. It turns out there was a stopover — possibly a very important one — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1920s.

Batchelor-Young, 64, learned she may have been a relative of one of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Her DNA matched that of remains exhumed from a local cemetery as part of the city’s effort to identify the massacre’s victims through living relatives.

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“I 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 came from.”

The massacre, one of the most horrific racial attacks in American history, left Tulsa’s Greenwood district, a black neighborhood, in smoldering ruins. The death toll is estimated at between 36 and 300. Many survivors scattered to unknown places, leaving clues about who lived and died nearby.

Some of the dead were identified after the massacre, but others were not. According to city officials, only 26 death certificates were issued in connection with the massacre in 1921, and newspaper reports from June of that year reported that 18 adult male victims were buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. A definitive death toll is still unknown, as rumors and reports circulated over the decades of bodies being thrown down mine shafts or dumped in the Arkansas River.

More than a century later, the economic and social scars are still there, and the question remains: who died in this massacre?

It is possible that after decades the answers to these questions will finally be found.

In 2020, the city began excavating a section of Oaklawn where evidence of a mass grave was found. It was a major step in solving a historic cold case, an ambitious mission that began with unmarked graves in what was once a potter’s field, moved forward in time to the living, and then back in time to the dead.

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

“To be able to link back to one of the burials is finally a step forward, a concrete piece of information on a subject that hasn’t had any new information for so long,” said Alison Wilde, the genealogy case manager for the project. “We’re talking about trying to find a name and a story of a real person who’s connected to someone who’s alive today.”

The investigation is based on science, documents and fading, often uncertain family memories. Investigators are faced with a world of unknowns: more than a century of time, spotty documentation and few names (and varying spellings) of victims and family members. If investigators can make positive identifications using investigative genetic genealogy methods, the process could be applied to other mass graves, said Danny Hellwig, director of lab development at Intermountain Forensics, the nonprofit lab that is working with the city to identify exhumed remains.

“We’re hoping to come across stories like, ‘I heard my mother talking about her uncle so-and-so, and he went out west, and nobody ever heard from him again,'” said Wilde, who is also director of the genetic genealogy program at Intermountain Forensics. Once the remains are identified, “we would really dive into the life of that person in hopes of answering the question: Was he or she still alive after June 1, 1921?”

Last fall, investigators told Walter Richard Harrington II, a retired library worker who lives near Cleveland, that his DNA linked him to Burial 13, the identification for the remains of a woman, through his mother, whose maiden name was Meadows. There were no visible gunshot wounds or signs of trauma.

“As soon as I heard about the DNA match, I called the oldest person in the family, my 87-year-old cousin, who remembered we had an aunt who lived in Tulsa,” he said. “But she couldn’t remember what happened to her. I’m hoping we can dig deeper and find out.”

Last year, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum announced that the project, called the 1921 Graves Study, had made a major scientific breakthrough. The exhumed remains of 22 individuals had yielded enough genetic material to create six DNA profiles that could be traced to living relatives.

The study matched the DNA profiles to 19 possible surnames in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas. Families with matching surnames — and a history in Tulsa — are being asked to get in touch to submit their DNA and share their stories.

This spring, just before the 103rd anniversary of the massacre, officials added two more profiles from previously exhumed burials. But they say they need more DNA from family members.

Investigators caution that they are not yet certain whether the remains are those of massacre victims. Regardless, the identifications would advance the investigation and provide clues to burial patterns at the cemetery.

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

The Tulsa Race Massacre began on May 31, 1921, with a false accusation. A white mob stormed a courthouse where a young black man was being held on charges that he had assaulted a young white woman. The man was eventually acquitted, but when the group of white men confronted a group of black men, shots were fired and a fight broke out, foreshadowing what would happen hours later.

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

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

No individual or entity has ever been held accountable for the deaths or destruction, though three centenarian survivors filed a lawsuit in 2020 seeking reparations, arguing that the massacre had created deep-seated economic and social inequalities. That lawsuit was dismissed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in June.

For Batchelor-Young, who is biracial, the search for her black father’s side had already yielded several clues before she was told about her possible Tulsa connection. She had already discovered that the woman who adopted her was her father’s aunt. And she had been in touch with her white mother and knew much 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 gas station in his later years. She learned that his grandmother’s maiden name was Bremby.

It would be years before new information emerged, this time from the gravesite investigation. During a Zoom call in September, investigators told Batchelor-Young that her DNA and paternal family history — the Bremby name and births in Austin County, Texas — matched that of Burial 13.

The investigation now focuses on Batchelor-Young’s great-grandmother and great-aunts: three sisters — Annie, Lucy and Francis Bremby — 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 they relate to the massacre or not – serve a higher purpose.

“It makes me feel like I belong somewhere,” she said, “to someone.”

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