Kavin Ross, Chairman of the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee in Tulsa, Oklahoma, discusses the work that’s being done to locate and identify victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 when a white mob set the then-prosperous all-black community of Greenwood on fire. All told, all 35 city blocks were burned, including more than 1,200 homes, 600 businesses, and a number of churches. It is estimated that up to 300 men, women, and children perished during the riot, with many others wounded.
A true descendant himself, Kavin has made it his mission to gather the stories of survivors to educate people on a history that has been left out of text books and was kept quiet by both black and white members of the Tulsa community over the years. By shining a light on the horrific events that occurred in Tulsa, he hopes to bring the community together and to help them heal and gain trust in the city again.
In this interview, Kavin discusses what he’s learned of his own family history in the past few years, shares stories that he’s gathered from survivors, and speaks to the identification efforts that began in 2020 and where they are currently.
**We at ISHI are heartbroken to share that Kavin Ross has recently passed away after a short illness. We are honored to share this video interview about the work he has done as the Chair of the Public Oversight Committee to advocate for victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Below is a tribute from DeNeen Brown, reporter at The Washington Post, who has so poignantly put into words, what we cannot.
A Tribute to J. Kavin Ross
The first time I met J. Kavin Ross, it was for an interview in 2018. He gave me a tour of the Greenwood Cultural Center and showed me the photos he had taken of the Tulsa Race Massacre survivors.
He knew each survivor by name.
He knew their life stories and where they lived and how they had survived.
That was the first time Kavin told me the story of the red birds.
He had gone alone to Booker T. Washington Cemetery in a search for mass graves. As he dug through the tangle of weeds to find headstones, a flock of red birds burst from a nearby bush.
Kavin took off running through the fields.
He later told a massacre survivor about his encounter with the flock of red birds.
She told him the appearance of the red birds was a reminder of the work that he had to do to tell the story of the massacre.
Over the next 30 years, Kavin worked tirelessly to tell that story, often going without sleep and working through the night– working in the search for mass graves and to uncover the truth.
Each time we see a red bird in a tree or outside your window, Kavin would say it’s a reminder of the work still yet to be done.
Remember Kavin each time you see a red bird outside your window.
He was a man of great integrity.
We will miss him running around Tulsa with that camera on his neck taking photographs of everybody.
We will miss him, in his Black Wall Street hat, at press conferences.
We will miss him as a teacher in the classroom.
His work on this Earth is now done.
May J. Kavin Ross rest in peace and in power and take his seat at the great table of our ancestors.
–DeNeen L. Brown
Laura: Thank you for joining us for the video series that we host every year at the International Symposium on Human Identification. This is our 33rd year and we are so pleased to J. Kavin Ross. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself Kavin?
Kavin: Well, there are many roles that I have there at home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This current one is that of the Chairman of the Mass Graves Investigation Oversight Committee where we are in search of those who have lost their lives in the Tulsa Oklahoma during the massacre of 1921. I am fortunate and have the honored to have the position to be able to be with members of my community as well as researchers and scientists that have helped us to find the truth about looking for our dead.
Laura: It is such a powerful and also horrific story. I know you’re speaking tomorrow after DeNeen Brown of the Washington Post who wrote an article that set a few things into motion and I know you know DeNeen. Maybe you want to talk about that connection a little bit?
Kavin: Well I have to give it to Ms. Brown. I often call her my Florence Nightingale, because she did something that I’ve been wanting our local media to cover and help get interest started about what happened in 1921 and when she came to our city to do a set of stories, I stormed the field and tried to encourage her and said the story that you need to report on is about what has happened to the mass graves and what my research and the information that pointed in the right direction, I most definitely knew that it would be a story worth publishing, so that initial publication back in 2018 was all the help I needed. So, I’m extremely grateful that her article (or articles) have been instrumental to getting the word out and drawing attention to an issue that has been really dormant for a number of years.
Laura: It was really incredible to read about how that 2018 article has shown a light nationally and brought some attention, but you have a real personal connection to this as well as a descendant. Can you talk about that?
Kavin: Well, until recently, and I’m probably pretty much like other Tulsans similarly situated. I never paid much attention into knowing about my family’s past. And, it really has taken off incredibly right now because of the interest of knowing that something had happened in time and you had descendants, you had family members, that was a part of that history. So, and I have to give it back to my father, State Representative Don Ross, now retired, who since high school learned of the so-called Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 directly from those who survived it and they were his teachers. He kept that story alive even though people didn’t want to hear it, both black and white, he was able to carry that story and begin to write about it as early as 1968. And then as time would go on, he’d write about it and a magazine would write about it, and that’s where I come in. As a young person in elementary school, he had a magazine called the Oklahoma Impact Magazine. It was like an Ebony type of magazine that reflected the life and times of African Americans in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City Times and that’s when I began to learn about the riot.
I was amazed. I thought this had happened somewhere else. So, I had the opportunity to learn about it from an early age, because those I had grown up around would tell me, but never to the degree of what I have learned over the years.
Laura: You know, I saw a very powerful photo of you online and you’re standing underneath the interstate, which is I believe is commonly known as Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Express Way and you’re actually standing on the spot that would have been your inheritance now that you’ve traced your family back.
Kavin: Yes, yes, and ironically, my father, while in legislature, renamed that freeway to the Martin Luther King freeway, so there’s a lot of meanings there, but I did not know the role that my great-grandparents had played. People did not tell us these stories until later on. I found out about directly how much information about my great-grandfather in just the last five years and I’ve been doing this for 30. So when I was able to trace my roots down and found out that that very freeway sits upon my heritance basically. My great-grandfather, had a lounge and it wasn’t like a fancy past. It was just like a juke joint, small and intimate. Probably like a Cheers where everybody knows your name kind of stuff. So I did more research and said not only does the freeway sit upon his business, but the baseball park that was recently created was also there. So, that was meaningful and encouraged me to find out more about my great-grandfather and what happened to him and just getting bits and pieces of the story and coming up with the big picture is amazing and while not only my inheritance passed down to me, but why not what information had happened, because it goes back to a period that we’ll talk about later called the Conspiracy of Silence.
Laura: That’s wow, that’s a very powerful way to phrase that. I’d really like to know how did you start to feel when you learned about this? When it really became evident for you that not only was this something that happened in Tulsa, where your family is that you’re so close to, but also that you were so connected to it, and now they’re doing excavations so they can test the DNA of the mass graves that they have finally been able to uncover.
Kavin: Yes, yes. I feel, at this point right now, especially being among participants in this symposium this week, I feel validation, redemption, because for years, I tried to get the city and community to deal with this issue. I strongly believe that some of the things that effects our community, what happened 101 years ago, when our community did not trust the city, because city officials made it untrustworthy themselves by not doing things or acting on their behalf to make a better history for our community. To know the fact that the first mayor in 101 years of mayors is the first one that stepped out and is doing things about this mass graves and issue. Both democrats and republicans, they just kicked the can down the road and never dealt with it. And I think for him, Mayor GT Bynum, did an excellent job by not only calling for a murder investigation (it’s not a history project, this is an investigation), and I’m so grateful that it added more city funds to this effort. It makes it, for me, and I’m sure other Tulsans as things are being revealed as we continue our search, that things are continuing to be more open and so we can find out the truth that has been hidden from us.
Laura: Absolutely. And it is very recent, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the first excavations out of Oak Lawn Cemetery was last summer and now they’re working on it again, I think I read something, just a week ago.
Kavin: Yes, we started, and it was by design, once we got the ok and once we had all the approval from the members of the oversight committee and all the technical and mechanical issues underhand, we decided by design to start that excavation on June 1, 2021 as a symbolic gesture. So, we wanted to step back in time once we found these victims, these pioneering Tulsans, to give us a second chance to do the right thing. And we chose that. So, in July, that very very hot July when we were 15 feet into the ground, not finding nothing at the time, and it was disappointing, because we were so sure we got ‘em. You never know until you go after them, so we reconvened and chose another hot spot and there is where it started to reveal itself and it was like, ok, we’ve got something more obtainable to research. Let’s go get them.
Laura: Let’s talk about that. What did you find, and what was that like for you?
Kavin: For me, not being experienced in the field of forensic science and being able to retrieve such information, the anticipation was incredible to see the bulldozers one at a time, inch by inch, scraping the ground. I was sitting there like let’s get to it, but it was very important to go very slow, because you never know what kind of artifacts you might find within that dig. And then the meticulous era of sifting and going through all the… it was nerve wracking! But, it was all worth it, because it revealed the first two and then the first 10, and I think all said it was like 30 that was there and we exhumed 19 of them and then those 19 were sent to the lab to my good friends at Intermountain Forensics. So, that right there has been very powerful, and I can’t wait, because now we’ve found more just last week as we put those loved ones back into the ground with a proper memorial with song and scripture and put them back and went right back to work after that. Slowly, we’d peel those layers of dirt back until it revealed, just like the other one, two, three, nine, twelve. After we revealed that, and we went to another right in the same area and we’re up to five right now. This is as of today.
Laura: Wow, that is remarkable and the fact that now the technology exists to run the DNA to understand more.
Kavin: Yes, and I’m glad that we have the DNA part of our generation to help us to determine if we can get the proper DNA to do the testing and to get the results of it. There are a lot of people that talked about their loved ones missing and they were effected by it, but when everything settled down, they didn’t… We’d never see them again. My great-grandfather who visited Tulsa before he passed away and the six others that were infants at the time, as he went down Greenwood and he went down to the area above his businesses, he said that he was very sad, because no longer was there a place for them all to join. It was gone. The people that he knew, as he got up to talk to them, were no longer there, and so, he died shortly after. He said that he was angry. He died angry because he never recouped or was able to rebuild after the so-called riot of 1921. And there are many stories like that.
Laura: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for your family and what they’ve been through. For people who aren’t aware, I think this is a great opportunity to educate people about what really happened in 1921. What I read was Black Wall Street, as it’s become known, an area of many, many businesses and more than 300 people that were on the day it happened were massacred and killed as well as the businesses leveled and burnt to the ground. You are somewhat of an expert and have studied and have been talking a lot about it and doing films about it. Can you tell us about it?
Kavin: Well it is a date and time when we’d go back where a situation happened where a young lady had openly accused a young man, Dick Rowland, of molestation. This was overheard by a clerk who announced to everybody what had happened. Dick Rolland, himself, would leave the downtown store and run to the Greenwood area. The Greenwood area at that time was much larger than what we see today. What we see of Greenwood today is just a sliver. The Greenwood District was larger to the west, to the east, the north, and to the south. Now, we’ve just got one block and one of or two buildings that were there.
So, Dick Rowland was quickly captured and placed within police protection. There was a large crowd, a white mob that had assembled demanding the release of Dick Rolland, and there was black group of vets that also assembled the release of Dick Rolland, but for the black folks, they were there to protect and they knew something bad was going to happen based on what had happened before. The white mob, yes, they wanted to lynch him. Even the reports in the newspapers called for lynchings. Nab negro in attack, which grew the numbers at least in the thousands.
So, the sheriff at the time, instructed the mob to go home. There’s nothing you can do. He’s not going to come out, we’ve got him protected. Tulsa’s first black officer told the black vets that there was nothing to see her, go back about your home. So, the crowd left their respective sides and met in the middle, which one of the white mobsters when up to a black vet and said, “Whatcha gonna do with that gun?” And the vet said, “Use it if I have to.” The mobster grabbed the nozzle of the gun, pulled it, and the shot went off and the so-called riot was on.
Laura: I mean it was an insane event, reading about it. And I was shocked reading about it that no more attention has been paid nationally until recently. Let’s talk about some of the work that you’ve done and you’ve really worked hard to put the information out there. I read about some of the documentaries. I’d love to hear more about how you turned something painful into a creative endeavor to get the word out and to shine a light. I love how you talk about history repeating itself and what we need to do to make sure that doesn’t happen. Can you talk about that?
Kavin: On so many levels, I have to give it to my father, State Representative Don Ross, who in his role as a lawmaker, offered a bill that led to the creation of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and we were able to bring in scholars, including a historian by the name of Dr. Franklin, Dr. Scott Ellsworth, Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield was a part of that in 1996. I basically came back from Houston, Texas after 15 years and I walked right on into this report and at that time was able to record the testimonies of the then-survivors who at the time were 5, 6, 9, 15 years of age and they were able to recall that time from a child’s perspective. It’s something that had been hidden from their minds, because no one was allowed to talk about it. And as I said earlier, it’s about the conspiracy of silence, where black folks refused to talk about it, because those who created the riot or were a part of the riot threatened anyone who spoke about it. They’ll have another one. And white folks didn’t want to talk about it, because it was an embarrassment and a stain on the community. Therefore, neither side talked about it and business went on as usual in Tulsa.
So, to hear these stories one by one is really something as being on the other side of the camera, my job as a videographer was to capture their stories, so my job was to make sure the lighting was right, that the mics worked, and wasn’t really paying attention to what they said, but it wasn’t until I played it back and each one of their stories were so interlocking and so similar, it was like different pieces of the puzzle and you put it together and you’re like, “oh my gosh!” Because these are the folks who are able to tell you the story. These folks were not able to have television or the internet, and radio was a new technology, so what they did have the power and the ability to tell a story so vividly that it makes you feel as if you were right there. And that was a magical moment, so it got me the interest and it’s been pulling me more and more pulling back the layers of this incredible story.
Laura: Are there any of those powerful stories that you want to share? Was there something that stuck with you?
Kavin: Oh my gosh, it’s like asking who’s your favorite child. Each one was so powerful. I only want to speak to the ones that were very useful as to my quest to find out what happened to those who lost their lives. We interviewed Eunice Jackson. Eunice Jackson was a survivor. At the time, she was a teenager, and she was a junior at Booker T. Washington High School, which was originally located in the Greenwood area. So, she talked about her experience that day, where she and the others saw the beginnings of that riot where she say people bleed from the west and to the east and to the south when it was erupting at the time, and how a lot of them were captured and taken into these makeshift internment camps around the city. And she said it so matter of factly and I was just in awe as she was sharing that story.
Now, she had a boyfriend at that time. Not yet married. His name was Sam Jackson, who was an up and coming businessman. He owned the Jackson Memory Chapel which was on Greenwood at the time. What happened was, just like his girlfriend, he too was placed in an internment camp. And he was taken out of the internment camp the day afterwards to go help tend to the injured at another internment camp, but also to help bury the dead, because his business was a mortuary. So, he tells the story of how he went on and helped tend to those who were injured at the baseball park, which was adjacent to the Oak Lawn Cemetery. Then, after that, he’d go with others to go help pick up the dead who lie in the streets when they fell. So, it was there job to not only go pick them up, but to get rid of them, bury them, embalm them, whatever was needed to just get them out. And he tells the story of how he was commissioned to embalm 18 people, because they needed to be transferred out of the city. So, he tells that story so vividly. I could go on about that alone and how over the years, how it was such an anguish to him to experience that part and not be able to tell.
So, Eunice Jackson, to go back to her story, Eunice would say that Sam would be gone for many, many days. We thought that he was dead. And all of a sudden he popped up over at her parents house, and she said, “Baby, where’ve you been? We thought that you were dead.” And he said, “I’ve been out burying the riot dead.” And she said, “I wish I would have asked him where.” He didn’t even tell her. Now we know better. Now we know the rest of the story.
Laura: Wow, that’s… I don’t have words, actually.
Kavin: It’ll punch you in the throat as you experience it. I’m trying my best to be composed, because when you hear firsthand, you sort of get like… You want to help them because it’s like watching a tragedy and it’s intriguing to hear this kind of story. You can’t help but to find out what can I do to make sure this never happens again.
Laura: There’s a power emerging out of the stories that you’ve collected. All of the stories that you’ve collected and now knowing where some of those bodies are so you can scientifically trace back to the families. What’s the next step? I’ve read a lot about the shadow over Tulsa that something was still lying there that’s never been put to rest. In conversations with you, you said it so beautifully that this is a gift and a possibility of bringing people together by going through this process.
Kavin: Yes, yes. You know, I’ve been so honored and blessed to be in this generation where people are talking and really helping us not only put the pieces together, but also giving us guidance, because we really don’t know how to do this. We’re at a point right now, where we’re trying to build bridges of hope so we can discuss this thing. Something that has constant communication at all times. I’m blessed to know that my father was part of the law that created a situation where this has to be taught in the school system, because you know that some of that has been hidden all of this time and not even in our history books. So, that’s been corrected, and even the current laws that are trying to prevent these teachings from ever happening on our law books that race theory can’t touch was already in place. You see how the children are reacting and they’re learning the story with us and they come up with solutions. So, we want to bring the children along with and they ask what they can do. I said, “you guys have got your cell phones. You could make videos and start talking about your families. Your grandma was there. Let her tell the story.” Because, unlike for me, my grandmother never talked about it. My great-aunt, who was the last one to live before she passed, we asked her why she never told us what had happened and she said, “because no one had ever asked me.” Out of sight, out of mind, but as she began to talk, she became angry and refused to talk, because they had lost so much. But the thing that is going on right now as we talk about the possibility of getting these remains to a lab to retrieve the DNA, I’m glad to see that people are looking for more information about their families. This is pre-DNA, but it is able to connect those dots, and what is happening is I’m finding out first that I have more cousins than I ever knew. So, I’m hoping that the DNA will confirm that, because we really don’t know who we really came to. And I want the end result to be that Tulsa is more small than we thought it would be. A much smaller community, because we’re all connected in some way, all races, on a cultural level. So, that’s the magic of it all. We had a visit to Tulsa some years ago, Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu had come to town and I had my first opportunity to interview him when he was speaking at Tulsa University and I knew that he was a good friend of historian Dr. Franklin, so I called him, because we always talk on the phone, and I said I’m going to be there to talk to Bishop Desmond Tutu, and he said, “good. Do this for me. Ask me this question here, which was what is the world view of Tulsa and what happened here in his perspective?” And Desmond Tutu said, “Tulsa is sitting on a powder keg, because it refuses to deal with this and sweeps it under the rug not to deal with it. However, if Tulsa would come together and have a conversation and a reconciliation, Tulsa could then become a jewel to the world when it comes to race relations, because everyone’s eyes will be on Tulsa.” And as a journalist, getting that one quote, that was my headline in the paper. Desmond Tutu says Tulsa Sits on a Powder Keg. Sold a lot of papers too, but the message was clear. We could be a jewel to the world. And that’s my biggest goal and the best way to do that is to be transparent and have trust on all levels.
Laura: This is remarkable. A jewel to the world. And I’ve heard you talk about if this process can be done right, it can be a shining light and example of how to bring communities together after such tragedy. We’re so lucky to have you.
Kavin: I appreciate the visit. Nothing but death could have kept me from getting here. I was like, I’ve got to be here.
Laura: Yes, we appreciate it. To have a true descendent who has done so much work around this to be here to speak with us today means more than you could possibly know. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Kavin: Well, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I would like to share. I won’t bore you with it. I’m so honored to be surrounded by folks of this caliber. Right now, I’m like a kid in a candy store with people that I can relate to. I’m not the expert in this area, but I’m intrigued and I can’t wait to use these techniques. I want to get home and get back to Oak Lawn, so I truly appreciate it.
Laura: Thanks so much Kavin. I can’t wait to talk to you after the sessions are over and see what your experience has been.
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