Tulsa Unearths Mass Grave in Search for Race Massacre Victims

Workers sift through dirt excavated in the Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Workers sift through dirt excavated in the Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. City of Tulsa

 

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This week is the second time this year the city has dug for lost victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the first time they’ve found something.

A search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre uncovered 10 coffins buried together on Wednesday, marking a potential breakthrough in the long quest to find the missing bodies of Black people killed by a violent white mob. Although experts are not yet sure if the remains belong to victims of the massacre, state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said they "feel a high degree of confidence that this is one of those areas we have been looking for." 

On Tuesday, the team announced they had found human remains at the site. 

This is the second time this year that Tulsa has dug for victims and the first time the city has uncovered coffins. The process for identifying the remains at the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery will involve forensic analysis followed by comparisons with funeral home records and death certificates. 

In 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum announced that the city would begin looking for the remains of victims believed to have been buried in unmarked graves and budgeted $100,000 to fund the search. In October of last year, researchers used radar to inspect for underground anomalies at sites of interest, potentially indicating mass graves. The excavation process began in July of this year, with Bynum saying that the “only way to move forward” and achieve reconciliation would be through “seeking the truth honestly.” 

“As we open this investigation 99 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to uncover,” he said. “But we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process—filling gaps in our city’s history, and providing healing and justice to our community."

On Wednesday, Bynum noted that work must be done to identify who was buried at the unmarked site at the cemetery. "We still have a lot of work to do to identify the nature of that mass grave and identify who is in it, but 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," he said.

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred on May 31 and June 1, 1921 at the site of “Black Wall Street,” the nickname for the Greenwood District, an affluent Black business and residential area. The day before the massacre began, a Black teenager, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a white woman during an elevator ride (a state report noted it is likely Rowland tripped and accidentally grabbed the woman). After armed Black Tulsans sought to protect Rowland from lynching after his arrest, protests broke out in front of the city’s courthouse and white rioters began looting the Greenwood District. They eventually burned 35 city blocks and rampaged through homes, shooting people and stealing belongings. Thirty-six people were confirmed dead, although historians believe as many as 300 people were killed. 

Nearly a century later, the massacre is still one of the deadliest acts of racial violence in U.S. history. No white people were arrested and for decades the episode was neglected as part of Tulsa’s history. 

In July, the initial excavation that was looking for a possible mass grave in the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery revealed no bodies. A site that researchers had believed to be an unmarked grave turned out to be a filled-in creek. 

This time, forensic archeologists targeted a different section of the cemetery known as the “Original 18” site where officials believe 18 people listed in a funeral home’s document might be buried without grave markers. The ledger from the white-owned funeral home describes 18 Black victims of the massacre who were buried, but names only 13 of them and fails to describe where the bodies were placed. The “Original 18” site where officials believe those missing victims might have ended up is close to the tombstones of the only marked graves of people killed in the massacre in the cemetery, those for Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard.

The coffins were found in the “Original 18” site, leading researchers to believe that they could belong to one of the missing victims. Ten were grouped together in one area and another was found nearby. 

The city is also conducting core sampling and test excavations at the “Clyde Eddy” site, named for a ten-year-old who witnessed the burial of Black victims in 1921 and later described what he had seen in 1999 to investigators from the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which released a report in 2001.

A committee has been overseeing the search for unmarked graves, identifying sites where researchers could look for remains. The process for finding the victims starts with ground penetrating radar then progresses to digging if anomalies are found. Once human remains are found, the state medical examiner’s office is tasked with determining the cause of death—as city officials have cautioned that bodies in unmarked graves might be misattributed to the massacre when they actually belong to victims of the Spanish Influenza outbreak that occurred two years before the massacre. Forensic anthropologists can distinguish massacre victims by looking for signs of trauma or gunshot wounds.

If remains are determined to come from the massacre, the city will test for DNA and conduct genealogical research, then commemorate the person who was killed with a new marker. The plan was for all work to happen on site, with no bodies removed from their graves, Stackelbeck, the state archeologist, said on Tuesday. 

On Wednesday, after the discovery of the mass grave, Stackelbeck said the city plans to cover the fragile coffins back up ahead of inclement weather later this week while they figure out next steps. During the excavation process, the city is providing a live video feed in the cemetery so that residents can watch researchers at work. 

Brenda Alford, the chair of the search oversight committee and a descendant of several massacre survivors, said on Wednesday that the progress so far is "very satisfying."

"I'm just very appreciative to all the hard work that is going into finding our truth, to again, bring some sense of justice and healing to our community," Alford said.

Editor's note: This story was updated after initial publication with new information from the city's find on Wednesday.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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