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Posted under: News

Archaeologists To Begin Excavating Suspected Mass Graves For Remains Of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Victims

The mass graves are believed to have been used for more than 300 Black people.

Digging has finally begun by a team of Oklahoma scientists hoping to learn more about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre through a mass grave that was identified in December, The Washington Post reported

Kary Stackelbeck, the chief archaeologist for the state, has put together a squad of forensic anthropologists and scientists to examine two sites they believe may have been used as mass graves for the more than 300 Black people thought to be killed during the massacre. 

“In the past 99 years, no other agency or government entity has moved this far into an investigation that will seek truth into what happened in Tulsa in 1921. As we resume with the test excavation, we’re taking all precautions to do so under the safest environment possible. I’m thankful for the health and well-being of our partners who have diligently coordinated with our team to move forward with this work during the constraints of the pandemic and record heat we are expecting,” said Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum. 

According to the city, the project will take about two weeks and is part of a larger effort "to determine the presence or absence of human remains, determine the nature of the interments, and obtain data to help inform the future steps in the investigation, including appropriate recovery efforts.” 

In December, a team of forensic archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar at three different sites and found anomalies that they said could be indicative of mass graves. If bodies are found, there will be a process put in place to identify how the victims died.

The city has put together an oversight committee comprised of descendants of massacre victims, community leaders, historians and scholars that will work on potential memorials or commemorations. 

The sites being excavated are The Canes, which is on a bluff along the Arkansas River, and the Oaklawn Cemetery. The cemetery is only a few blocks away from the famous Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa that was affectionately known as "Black Wall Street."

“I always knew these mass graves existed. We are pleased with the fact there is some evidence mass graves have been located. We are excited about the next steps of uncovering a cover-up and laying these bodies to rest respectfully as they should have been nearly 100 years ago,” Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper told a crowd in December. 

The digging was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but this weekend researchers dug an 8-by-10 hole at the cemetery to begin excavating the area. Much of the digging will be done by hand. According to The Post, the city will provide regular updates on the findings as scientists continue their work. 

On May 31, 1921, a mob of police and white residents burned down Greenwood and killed hundreds of Black people following accusations that a Black teenager accosted a white woman. 

Historians say at least 1,250 homes, along with other buildings like schools, businesses and churches, were burned to the ground and hundreds of bodies were either thrown into the Arkansas River or moved and dumped elsewhere. At least 800 people were treated for injuries, and more than 6,000 Black people were detained for about eight days while police put the fires out. 

In recent years, there has been a push to have the event recognized in history books, and descendants of those who survived the massacre want the city to investigate what happened. 

HBO's highly regarded series Watchmen centered around what happened in Greenwood and has helped spur wider interest in the historical tragedy.

Led by the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, the recent efforts by scientists are building on work done by renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who wrote a report in 2001 about potential mass graves in Tulsa. Despite Snow's findings, the investigation was ended without more in-depth research.

The effort was revived in 2018 after The Post ran an in-depth story on unanswered questions surrounding the massacre. The event was largely removed from Tulsa history books until local residents and Snow's work revived interest in it.

“We owe it to the community to know if there are mass graves in our city. We owe it to the victims and their family members. We will do everything we can to find out what happened in 1921,” Bynum said in 2018. 

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