The search for possible mass graves from the Tulsa race massacre is officially underway nearly a century after hundreds of Black people were brutally killed by White rioters who burned and looted their community.
The test excavation, which resumed Monday, is part of a study to determine whether there are human remains in the area, and, if so, what state they are in. It was put on hold in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our work continues to find the graves of our fellow Tulsans who went missing during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Today, we begin a test excavation in Oaklawn Cemetery to determine what is causing an underground anomaly found by geophysical scanning conducted earlier this year,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said on Facebook.
“Because the scan is consistent with a mass grave, a team of some of the foremost researchers in the nation have assembled in Tulsa to assess both the presence and the condition of any human remains at the site in question.”
During the excavation, the Oaklawn Cemetery — where a survey found unmarked graves, as well as large, seemingly human-dug areas that are likely mass graves — is closed to the public. The excavation is expected to take three to six days.
“We have people who are carefully monitoring as he strips soil away and looking for any change in the soil color, potential indicator of artifacts or other objects,” Oklahoma’s state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck told CNN affiliate KTUL.
The area is being treated as a crime scene, with a forensic archaeologist on site looking for clues.
“Gunshot wounds, signs of burning, all of those are issues that can survive with preservation if the preservation is good enough there,” Phoebe Stubblefield, Forensic Anthropologist at the University of Florida, told KTUL.
The search continued Tuesday morning.
About the massacre
The Tulsa race riot of 1921, also called the Tulsa race massacre, resulted in the death of hundreds of African American residents of the city’s Greenwood district — then a Black economic hub also known as Black Wall Street — when a mob of White rioters looted and burned the community.
Historic accounts say the violence was sparked by a confrontation between a Black resident and a White man who was part of a group of angry White residents demanding the lynching of a young Black man. A conflict between the two men resulted in a struggle over the White man’s gun. Ultimately, the White man was shot, and a White mob began to storm the neighborhood.
An estimated 10,000 White people flooded into Greenwood, looting, burning, shooting, and, in some accounts, bombing Black residents.
Following the attack, 35 city blocks were burned, more than 800 people were injured, and as many as 300 people were killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
Bodies were buried by strangers in mass graves while the decedents’ families remained detained under martial law, Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian who has worked on the recovery of the Tulsa riot graves for decades, said in December.
Families were never told whether their loved ones died or where they were buried, and there weren’t any funerals, he added.
The city created a Facebook page with live video feeds and updates on the excavation.
“In Tulsa, if you’re murdered we do everything we can to find out what happened and bring justice for your family,” Bynum said “It should not have taken us 99 years to get to this point of the investigation. But this generation of Tulsans is committed to being a better city, and to doing right by the victims. We will follow the truth where it leads us.”