Update: Mayor G.T. Bynum on restoring trust
2021 was always going to be a fraught year for Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 31 and June 1, the city marks the centennial of a racist massacre that, over a 24-hour period, destroyed the Black neighborhood of Greenwood. The event left at least dozens dead and displaced thousands.
Over the past year, city officials and civic leaders have planned events to commemorate the victims and survivors. Yet the city is also facing a reparations lawsuit from those same individuals, and the commission in charge of commemoration plans has been accused of whitewashing the city’s history and marketing a narrative of unity that doesn’t yet exist.
In a conversation with our reporters just ahead of the centennial, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum reflects on the challenges of wrestling with partisanship and racism, both past and present.
“It is ... a very personal process and can become very raw at times because these are discussions that should have been held 100 years ago. And we’re trying to have them a century after the fact,” he said. “But we are trying.”
This episode is an update to Part 2 of our podcast “Tulsa Rising,” which commemorates the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. To learn more about the podcast and find other episodes, please visit our page.
This story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.
Samantha Laine Perfas: Hi everyone, I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.
Jessica Mendoza: And I’m Jessica Mendoza.
Sam: This is Tulsa Rising, a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor –
Jess: – where we take a close look at the legacy of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
Sam: A lot has happened since we first reported this story back in the fall of 2020. Remember the reparations lawsuit filed by survivors of the massacre and descendants against the city? We talked about it in Part 1. Well, that lawsuit has been causing a lot of tension. Some defendants are demanding reparations need to be paid. But the city argues that it’s unfair to ask today’s taxpayers to foot the bill for something that happened 100 years ago.
Jess: A commission was put together to oversee the centennial commemoration of the massacre. And it involves people on both sides of the suit. But when they planned the centennial events they didn’t work with survivors or descendants – people like Lessie Benningfield Randle, also known as Mother Randle. She’s 106 years old, a survivor of the massacre. And she doesn’t agree with the commission’s narrative of unity. So there have been accusations of the whole event being whitewashed and co-opted.
Sam: Then there’s the investigation into whether or not folks killed in the massacre were buried in mass graves in the city. There have been new developments on that front, too.
Jess: Today we hear from Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum. We talked to him in early May, just ahead of the centennial of the massacre on May 31st and June 1st. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk about the reparations lawsuit. But he gave us updates on the search for the mass graves and how the politics of race is evolving in Tulsa, from his perspective.
Sam: You can find all six episodes of this series wherever you get your podcasts. Or visit csmonitor.com/tulsarising. Now: our conversation with Mayor Bynum.
Jess: Mayor Bynum, this is Jess Mendoza, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.
G.T. Bynum: Of course. Thanks for having me on.
Sam: How are you doing? How is the city of Tulsa holding up with the pandemic?
Bynum: You know, we just allowed our mask ordinance to expire. Our hospitalization levels have been at really all time low levels for the last month and a half. So we’re in a really good spot. We can start to ease some restrictions. And there’s a real sense of relief right now that maybe and hopefully we’re on the other side of this thing.
Jess: We had connected on the search for mass graves in the city. We were wondering if you could talk a bit about what you found back in October and if there have been any developments since.
Bynum: Well, that is a really historic effort for us as a city to identify the location of the graves of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. We had a frustrating start over the summer. We had found a very large anomaly that we thought might be a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery, which is the number one candidate for a mass grave. It was a bust. What we were seeing was construction fill from an old creek bed that had been filled in at some point in probably the 1930s. Later in the summer, we found a trench that was dug in this cemetery. And you can actually see the stairsteps that they dug out down into this trench and lined up a series of coffins and then covered it over. And we were only able to expose about a third of the area in question before we decided we needed to bring things to a halt and move forward with the necessary legal work to do a true exhumation of these remains.
All of these coffins were placed at one time right next to each other. The fact that there is no record of them ever being placed there also is very suspicious. And that they’re right next to the only two marked known graves of race massacre victims. All of these things lead us to feel pretty strongly that these would be victims of the race massacre, but we won’t know for sure until an exhumation is done.
Since that discovery in October, we have spent months going through the legal work and the community advisement process. And in June, we will have a team of forensic scientists begin the exhumation of those remains to try and identify cause of death and era that the remains may be from. The ideal scenario is that we can recover DNA from the remains and ultimately connect the remains with descendants. But that’s a very challenging long term process.
Jess: And yet this is such a big step. It’s more than I guess has ever been done. How is the community feeling about that?
Bynum: I think the conventional wisdom definitely that I ran into before we started this process was that there’d be this giant backlash against it. And for the most part, what I’ve run into is the opposite. Tulsans of all races, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, come out to me and say, “Thank you for doing that. It’s about time. I don’t want to be living in a city or raising my kids in a city that might have a mass grave in it. And we didn’t bother to see if it’s there or not or try to find it.” You know, my only regret is that we’re even having to do this. This is something that the city should have done 100 years ago, but it falls to this generation of Tulsans to do the right thing.
Jess: The other thing that we heard from Tulsans when we visited – back in late September, it was – was the election. There was a lot of political tension. Now that we’re months into the new administration, we’re wondering if anything’s changed in the city between Democrats and Republicans, among different communities, and if so, in what ways?
Bynum: I mean, I’ve been in office here at City Hall through three different presidential elections. And I can tell you that every year that there’s a presidential election, animosity between Republicans and Democrats spikes. And it’s a really challenging year to try and pull a city together to get important things done. And so I’m always thankful when the presidential elections are over and we can move forward. And I would say the acute level of partisanship has really waned. But I also think the other thing unique about last year is being in the middle of a pandemic in which people are isolated and for a lot of people, were relying for their human interaction, on social media platforms that have algorithms built into them to stoke arguments and controversy. Increasing as every week goes by, more and more human to human interaction, rather than relying on those filters – I think that is making a big difference too.
Sam: There was another area of tension we felt when we were there, just speaking to different members of the community. And a lot of it was focused around the killing of George Floyd. I’m curious if the Derek Chauvin trial and conviction has affected just the conversation happening in Tulsa, if that has eased political tensions at all, or if that was also a big moment for the community in any way.
Bynum: You couldn’t find a single police officer in this community who would defend what Derek Chauvin did. Every one that I talked to was disgusted by the video, and I think that helps when there is that kind of consensus view. But that being said, we still have challenges here in Tulsa, just like every major city does, in building ties between police officers and the citizens they serve. I think one of the greater challenges that we face as a city is just the sharp decline in the number of people who want to go into law enforcement now. To do community policing right, you need the right number of officers so that they’re not just reacting to calls all the time. They’re out of their car, walking around the beat that they serve, and building those relationships. So that is also a big focus for us. We are trying to build up the diversity of our department. You know, we’re recruiting officers today that will reflect the city that we are 25, 30 years from now.
Jess: I think everything that we’ve talked about so far comes down to trust. Trust between different groups of people, trust between, you know, the community and leadership of the city. Could you speak to how that trust has been built up over the past months and years? And what’s the spirit of the city like now, in the lead up to that centennial?
Bynum: It is entirely understandable why there has been historically a lack of trust towards the city government from Black Tulsans. You know, whenever I have people push back on me about the search for the graves, I ask them to humor me by picturing in their mind that they are at home on a summer evening. There’s a knock at their door and somebody says, “There’s a riot going on. You’ve got to come with me for your own safety.” And you go with this person to the convention center in whatever city you happen to live in. And then you’re locked inside there for four days and you have no idea what’s going on. And at the end of those four days, you walk back to your home. Only your entire neighborhood has been burned to the ground. Your business is burned to the ground. Members of your family are missing. And the response of the local community to you is: “We just need to move on past this and not talk about this.” No one is ever prosecuted for doing this to you or held to account.
Today, I think there’s a generation of Tulsans who recognize the moral imperative that we have to understand what happened and to try to do right by the victims. It is also necessarily a very personal process and can become very raw at times because these are discussions that should have been held 100 years ago. And we’re trying to have them a century after the fact. But we are trying.
Jess: What happens when people have different ideas of what the right thing is? How do you figure out what that “right thing” actually looks like?
Bynum: You know, that is I think where a lot of the work around leadership and policy development comes. You have to be able to work with people who don’t feel the same way you do, but find areas of agreement and where you can move forward and do so. I have yet to meet somebody in Tulsa who doesn’t think that every kid growing up in this community ought to have an equal shot at a great life. People throughout the community support the economic development investments that we’re making into the predominantly African-American part of our city, because there’s broad acknowledgment that that part of our city has been overlooked for way too long.
I’m getting waved down that I’m talking too long and running over.
Sam: We don’t want you to get in trouble, so thank you so much for taking time and for going late with us.
Bynum: Of course.
Sam: We look forward to seeing what comes in Tulsa.
Bynum: Well, I really appreciate your interest. I think there’s been more reported on the race massacre in the last five years and there was in the previous 95. And it’s helping us in Tulsa understand what happened better and how we can move forward in a more positive way. So I really do appreciate it.
Jess: Thanks for listening! Next time: Tulsans are finding ways to own their story using music, art, and the spirit that built – and rebuilt – Black Wall Street. That’s Part 3 of Tulsa Rising: “Everything Is Us.”
Sam: If you’re enjoying this series, please rate and review us! You can find all our episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/tulsarising.
Jess: This episode was reported and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza.
Sam: And me, Samantha Laine Perfas.
Jess: Edited by Clay Collins. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.