Last summer, after generations of silence and denial, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, began excavations in search of the graves of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Almost a century had passed since a mob of white Tulsans forcibly entered it invaded the affluent black neighborhoods of Greenwood, overcame vigorous defenses by some residents, killed and rounded up black Tulsans en masse, and burned much of the neighborhood.
The search for graves that is now underway relies on surveying technology based on scattered evidence – newspaper articles nearly a hundred years old, funeral home records, and scarred memories.
The first excavation site in part of the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery revealed no evidence of a mass grave. But in October, the remains of at least 12 people were discovered in a mass grave in the former Black Pottery Field in Oaklawn. In early June, the research team returned for a more in-depth search. On Tuesday they announced that evidence had been found for at least 15 other coffins, but whether any of them were linked to the massacre remains to be determined.
What did you find?
The mass grave discovered in October is in what has been designated the “Original 18” area of Oaklawn Cemetery based on contemporary reports that 18 black victims of the massacre – 13 of whom were identified by name in a funeral home book – were found somewhere on buried in the cemetery.
Researchers excavating the site found a woman’s wooden coffin along with a metal coffin plate labeled “At rest”. Searching the same area soon discovered 11 more burials “based on the outlines of wooden coffins, coffin materials (e.g., handles, wood fragments, possible faceplate glass, etc.), some accidentally uncovered human remains,” and other indicators. They also found a staircase buried in the ground, further evidence of a mass grave.
The team began expanding its work upon his return earlier this month, announcing Tuesday that the remains of an additional 15 people had been discovered within the confines of this mass grave.
How sure are you that they are victims of massacres?
Very little is currently known about the remains, including race or cause of death. Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said at a news conference Tuesday that “multiple hypotheses” were being worked on about the mass grave, including the possibility that some might become victims of the 1918-19 pandemic flu.
“We have to be careful and not get too far in our interpretations,” she said.
Still, given the documentary evidence, there were compelling reasons to suspect that the mass grave was intended for the victims of the 1921 massacre.
How do you actually find out?
After the remains have been comprehensively documented, they are packed in full-length cardboard boxes, draped in black velvet cloth and taken to a laboratory on site for analysis.
In a presentation in March to the project oversight committee, Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida who is part of the research team, said there might be circumstantial evidence such as signs of traumatic injury or the presence of spherical fragments. That would suggest that the remains recovered were massacre victims.
In the same session, Ms. Stackelbeck said that there could be evidence like pins from hospital gowns when it came to flu victims. Small clues like these would help researchers draw bigger conclusions about the tomb.
Ms. Stubblefield said she initially assumed that a high proportion of male bodies in the mass grave would be evidence that they were riot victims. But she said she reconsidered after studying historical accounts of the massacre. “We’re talking about looters; They are the worst pirates, ”she said. “I would expect there would be women too.”
Will they be able to determine the actual IDs of the corpses?
This is unclear. In her presentation in March, Dr. Stubblefield said they had found “well-preserved” teeth and bone fragments, but the quality and quantity of the DNA would only be known after examining the remains. If the remains provided useful forensic evidence, the next of kin who could provide comparative DNA samples – ideally grandchildren or great-grandchildren – would need to be tracked down. The whole process, she said, could take months or more.
At a committee meeting in April, a forensic expert suggested that if DNA samples are sufficiently intact, some next steps could be working with a genealogist or making an open call to probable descendants to submit samples.
What happens to the remains?
Immediately after the remains have been analyzed, they are buried, this time with markings, in Oaklawn Cemetery. If they turn out to be victims, there is broad consensus that they shouldn’t stay there permanently, especially since they would share a final resting place with prominent Tulsans who actively participated in the massacre.
While the plans are still being debated, 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 a pre-existing memorial park. Moving all found remains to a memorial, along with reparations for survivors and descendants, was one of five recommendations made by the state-run Tulsa Race Riot Commission 20 years ago.
Where are you going to look next?
In the Commission’s 2001 report, three potential mass burial sites were identified and ground-penetrating radar has been in use on two of them as of October 2019 – including in Oaklawn, where anomalies discovered led to excavations. Michelle Brooks, city spokeswoman, said investigators are expected to deploy radar at the third location, a privately owned cemetery, later this month.
Nobody knows how many victims could ultimately be found. Fewer than 40 death certificates have been issued for massacre-related deaths, but some historians estimate the casualty as high as 300. Over the decades, rumors and reports have been spread of bodies being thrown into mine shafts or dumped into the Arkansas River final count elusive. But the Heads of Search say they will keep searching.
“We know there are needles,” said Mr. Ross. “We just have to find the right haystacks.”