Update (October 22, 2020): Archaeologists have been working for months to find the remains of the Black Tulsa residents who were killed during the 1921 Race Massacre that occurred in the city, and may have discovered victims' bodies.
Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck told The Washington Post on Wednesday that at least 10 bodies have been discovered in a suspected mass grave located at a cemetery in Tulsa.
“What we were finding was an indication that we were inside a large area ... a large hole that had been excavated and into which several individuals had been placed and buried in that location. This constitutes a mass grave,” Stackelbeck said. “Those skeletal remains are not in great condition. They’re not the worst condition we have seen...but they’re not the best.”
Stackelbeck said another body was found on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press, bringing the total up to 11.
One set of remains was located in an area known as the "Original 18" and was identified by funeral home records as the location of massacre victims.
Another researcher involved in the effort, Phoebe Stubblefield, said it was difficult for archaeologists because the remains were not well preserved.
Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist, has a personal connection to the effort. One of her relatives was a survivor of the massacre and in an interview with the Associated Press, she said that while it was exciting researchers found remains, they needed time to verify the bones because only the teeth had not deteriorated.
Stackelbeck added that it was too early to make any judgments about whether the remains were from the massacre itself or just the same time period.
“We have not yet made our assessment to say that these do actually represent the massacre victims. Whether they are associated with the same event or the same time period of burial is something that we are still in the process of assessing,” Stackelbeck said.
In July, researchers excavated parts of Oaklawn cemetery but did not find anything. They started searching another part of the cemetery on Monday before finding the new remains.
“What we do know as of today is that there is a mass grave in Oaklawn cemetery where we have no record of anyone being buried,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum told the Associated Press.
Original (July 13, 2020): 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.
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.