Another 24 unmarked graves, possibly containing victims of Oklahoma’s Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, have been discovered in a city cemetery, according to an update from the state archaeologist.
Newly discovered burials bring in total unmarked graves discovered at Oaklawn Cemetery in the city to more than 40, and investigators suspect there could be many more. Up to 300 people were killed (opens in a new tab) in the outbreak of racial violence, by modern estimates – most of whom were black; however, reports at the time likely downplayed the severity of the conflict.
Oklahoma State Archaeologist, Kary Stackelbeck (opens in a new tab), said the latest excavations included 12 adult graves in one trench and five more in another. Three other burials were in small coffins and appear to have been children.
These tombs will now be examined by hand to learn more about the coffins they contain; it will influence those who will be exhumed, she said in an online video (opens in a new tab).
Researchers make a photogrammetric model – a technique that uses digital photography to create a detailed three-dimensional rendering – of each grave before removing anything; and any human remains they decide to take to a forensic lab for further study will be “stabilized” so they can be transported more safely, she said. Members of the city’s public oversight committee and clergy also oversee evictions.
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“We try to do every step of this process as respectfully as possible,” Stackelbeck said, adding that the remains will be reburied after lab tests – including DNA analysis — are complete.
The 1921 City of Tulsa Graves Survey (opens in a new tab) said in a statement that the final dig at Oaklawn Cemetery began Oct. 26 and is expected to be complete by Nov. 18.
The Oklahoma state legislature created a commission in 1997 to investigate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which was sparked by an alleged assault by a young black man on a young white woman – a charge that has then was rejected.
Tulsa police arrested the man, named Dick Rowland. Later that day, armed mobs of whites and blacks clashed outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held; and flurries of gunfire from both sides erupted into a race riot, fueled by deep racial tensions between the city’s black and white communities.
The next morning, the city’s thriving Greenwood neighborhood – known as “Black Wall Street” because of the many thriving black-owned businesses – had been set on fire and up to 300 people had been killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society (opens in a new tab).
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The outbreak of racial violence in Tulsa came shortly after the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which white supremacists attacked black people in several American cities. Hundreds of black people are estimated to have been killed in the unrest, according to the National World War I Museum and Memorial (opens in a new tab).
In 2001, the Oklahoma State Commission officially acknowledged the massacre and recommended that restitution be paid to the black community of Tulsa. But the compensation payment and some other recommendations were not adopted, according to the Oklahoma Statute Accepting Report (opens in a new tab).
The city of Tulsa began investigating the massacre in 2019 before its centennial in 2021; and investigations focused on Oaklawn Cemetery, where hundreds of victims may have been buried in unmarked graves.
The latest findings from archaeologists on the project reinforce the idea that many victims of the massacre were buried there in secret.
Ground penetrating radar scans were carried out at several places in the cemetery, indicating what could be a mass grave and several unmarked graves.
Radar scans have also been taken of an area called The Canes near the Arkansas River in the city, indicating that the ground below the surface has been disturbed, possibly from secret burials. City of Tulsa investigations into the massacre are ongoing and further excavations are planned.