Last summer, after generations of silence and denial, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, began excavating the graves of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Almost a century has passed. had since passed since a mob of White Tulsans had violently invaded the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood, overcoming a vigorous defense of some residents, killing and rounding up Black Tulsans and burning down much of the neighborhood.
The current burial search relies on surveying technology lit by scattered evidence – newspaper articles nearly a century old, funeral home records and tagged memorabilia.
The first site that was excavated, in part of the town’s Oaklawn cemetery, did not reveal any evidence of a mass grave. But in October, the remains of at least 12 people were found in a mass grave in what was once the Dark Potters’ Field in Oaklawn. In early June, the research team returned for further research. On Tuesday, they announced that evidence of at least 15 other coffins had been found, although it remains to be determined whether any of them were linked to the massacre.
What did they find?
The mass grave uncovered in October is in a part of Oaklawn Cemetery that has been referred to as the “Original 18” area, based on contemporary accounts that 18 black victims of the massacre – 13 of whom were identified by name on a funeral home register – were buried somewhere in the cemetery.
Researchers who searched the site found a woman’s wooden coffin, as well as a metal coffin plaque marked “At Rest”. While searching in the same area, they quickly discovered 11 other burials, “based on the outlines of wooden coffins, coffin materials (eg, handles, wood fragments, possible glass plates, etc.) ), human remains inadvertently exposed “and other indicators. . They also found a staircase buried in the ground, further evidence of a mass grave.
The team began expanding their work upon their return earlier this month and announced on Tuesday that the remains of 15 other people had been found within the boundaries of that mass grave.
To what extent are they convinced that they are victims of massacres?
At this point, very little is known about the remains, including race or cause of death. Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck told a press conference on Tuesday that they were working with “several hypotheses” about the mass grave, including the possibility that some may be victims of the influenza pandemic. from 1918-19.
“We must remain cautious and not impose ourselves too much in our interpretations,” she said.
Still, there was strong reason to suspect that the mass grave was intended for victims of the 1921 massacre, given the documentary evidence.
How do they really understand this?
Once the remains have been extensively documented on site, they will be placed in body-length cardboard boxes, draped in a black velvet cloth, and transported to an on-site laboratory for analysis.
In a March presentation to the committee overseeing the project, Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist who is part of the research team, said there may be circumstantial evidence, such as signs of traumatic injury or the presence of bullet fragments, this would suggest that the recovered remains were victims of massacres.
At that same meeting, Ms Stackelbeck said if they were flu victims, there could be evidence such as pins from hospital gowns. Small clues like these would help researchers draw larger conclusions about the grave.
Ms Stubblefield said she initially assumed that a high proportion of male bodies in the mass grave would constitute evidence that they were riot victims. But she said she reconsidered this after studying the historical accounts of the massacre. “We are talking about looters; these are the worst types of hackers, ”she said. “I would expect there to be women as well.”
Will they be able to determine the real identity of the bodies?
It’s not clear. In his presentation in March, Dr Stubblefield said they had found “well-preserved” fragments of teeth and bones, but the quality and quantity of the DNA would not be known until the remains were would not have been tested. If the remains provided useful forensic evidence, the next of kin who could provide comparative DNA samples – ideally grandchildren or great-grandchildren – should be traced. The whole process, she said, could take months or more.
At a committee meeting in April, a forensic science expert proposed that if DNA samples were found to be sufficiently intact, the next steps might be to work with a genealogist or make an open appeal to descendants. likely to submit samples.
What will happen to the remains?
Immediately after analyzing the remains, they will be reburied, with markers this time, at Oaklawn Cemetery. If they turn out to be victims, it is widely believed that they should not stay there permanently, especially since they would share a final abode with prominent Tulsans who actively participated in the massacre.
While the plans are still being discussed, Kavin Ross, chairman of the oversight committee, said many in the community wanted the remains of the victims to be reburied in Greenwood, possibly in an already existing memorial park. In addition to reparations for survivors and descendants, the reburial of any remains found in a memorial was one of five recommendations made 20 years ago by the Tulsa Race Riot State Commission.
Where will they look next?
Three potential mass grave sites were identified in the 2001 commission report, and since October 2019, ground penetrating radar has been used on two of them, including Oaklawn, where the anomalies detected triggered excavations. Michelle Brooks, a city spokeswoman, said investigators are expected to use radar at the third site, a private cemetery, later this month.
No one knows how many victims could ultimately be found. Fewer than 40 death certificates have been issued for deaths linked to the massacres, but some historians have estimated the toll as high as 300. Over the decades, rumors and reports have been transmitted of bodies being thrown into mine shafts. or thrown into the Arkansas River, making an elusive final tally. But research officials say they will keep looking.
“We know there are needles,” Ross said. “We just need to find the right haystacks.”