Investigation may have uncovered mass grave sites from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre

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3rd June 1921: Martial law in Tulsa, Oklahoma after the race riots. Injured and wounded prisoners are being taken to hospital by National guardsmen. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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A decades-long effort to recover mass burial plots from the 1921 Tulsa race riot has been spurred forward after an investigation found that two sites in the Oklahoma city may contain unmarked mass graves.

Scientists and forensic anthropologists have been examining three locations in Tulsa since October. On Monday, the city’s 1921 Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee presented the results publicly and discussed how the city should proceed.

The deadly 1921 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 — 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 one 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 hell broke loose in Tulsa.

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, over 800 were injured, and as many as 300 people were dead, 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, said Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian who has worked on the recovery of the Tulsa riot graves for decades.

“They did not know that their loved ones were dead or they did not know what was happening to them. The authorities never told them where these individuals were buried, and there were never any funerals,” he said during Monday’s committee meeting, a video of which was posted online.

What the investigation found

A geophysical survey, a type of archeological scanning, was performed at three sites around Tulsa — Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery, and a triangular area of land near the Arkansas River called The Canes.

Researchers used technologies to search for magnetic variations in the soil and moisture content difference, as well as radar to determine the depth and size of things underground, the committee’s expert members explained.

The survey found unmarked graves, as well as large, seemingly human-dug areas that are likely mass graves at both The Canes and Oaklawn Cemetery, Scott Hammerstedt, a senior researcher at the University of Oklahoma, said during the public meeting.

It is unclear yet whether these possible graves are related to the riots, but the findings are a “very likely candidate for further exploration,” Hammerstedt said.

What happens next

The city should protect The Canes and Oaklawn Cemetery until they can be examined further, said Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida.

The committee and the city should also decide what will happen to the remains once they are exhumed, or dug up, she said, noting that the panel does not want bodies to remain unburied for years or be placed in a museum.

“We want them to be reinterred respectfully,” Stubblefield said.

Experts want to see additional surveys of the two sites and possibly of others, and they intend to lay out a plan for excavation, examination of any remains and the sites, and, finally, reinterment. The committee will hold its next public meeting in February.

Tulsa’s mayor, G.T. Bynum, is committed to making the process open to the public, he has said.

“As we open this investigation 98 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to uncover,” Bynum said in a statement in October. “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.”

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