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Scientists find a mass grave in Tulsa that might be from 1921 race massacre

The Rev. Robert Turner of Vernon A.M.E Church prays as crews at Oaklawn Cemetery search for remains from the 1921 massacre of Black residents. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World/AP)

TULSA — Scientists announced Wednesday that they have found a mass grave in a city-owned cemetery blocks from the site of a 1921 race massacre.

After discovering human remains Tuesday, Kary Stackelbeck, an Oklahoma state archaeologist, said scientists excavating in the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery were able to see the outlines of at least 10 coffins containing multiple individuals.

“This constitutes a mass grave,” she said. But she cautioned that more work must be done to determine whether the bodies are victims of the century-old race massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

The scientists, who include archaeologists and forensic anthropologists, plan to further examine the site using hand excavation to “better delineate” the coffins.

Since the city began its second excavation Monday, scientists have found at least 11 bodies buried in an unmarked section of the cemetery.

“Whether they are associated with the same event or the same time period of burial is something we are in the process of assessing,” Stackelbeck said. The scientists plan to analyze the remains in the location where they were found, looking for signs of burns, gunshots and trauma that could connect them to the rampage.

“We feel confident this is one location we have been looking for,” she said.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) called the discovery a significant moment in Tulsa history. In 2018, Bynum ordered the city to search for potential mass graves after a Washington Post story detailed the unresolved questions surrounding the massacre. Bynum told The Post then that it was imperative the city find out whether there are mass graves, as officials prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

“While we knew there was the potential for mass graves from this event, they could have been anywhere,” Bynum said at the Wednesday news conference. “Using modern science, we were able to scan those locations,” identified by massacre survivors, “which led us to a more narrow area. And that brings us to this point today, where we are able to say we have found a mass grave.”

Bynum added that more work must be done to identify the bodies. “What we do know today is, there is a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery, where we had no record of anyone being buried,” Bynum said. “That is where we are in the course of this investigation. The ultimate goal is to find out who these victims were and to connect them with their families. … I think about those families who have gone for 99 years with no idea where their family members were. We are a step closer today to having the ability to tell them that.”

Oaklawn Cemetery is only blocks from Greenwood, the all-Black community destroyed nearly 100 years ago by a White mob in a horrific rampage that historians say may have left as many as 300 Black people dead and 10,000 homeless.

‘They was killing black people’

Survivors reported seeing bodies tossed into the Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to account for the dead. Other survivors told stories of Black people being placed in mass graves. No White person was ever arrested in connection with the massacre. For decades after the rampage, few people spoke of what happened.

In July, Tulsa made history by physically digging for mass graves. While the first search ended without finding human remains, the city decided to expand its search. The second excavation is focused on a location called “the Original 18 Site,” where officials believe the bodies of 18 Black people were buried after the massacre.

Records show that a White-owned funeral home charged the county of Tulsa in June 1921 for burials of “18 Negroes.” Funeral home records and death certificates from 1921 show that at least 18 identified and unidentified Black massacre victims were buried in an unmarked grave in Oaklawn.

The mass grave found Wednesday was discovered in the “Original 18” area, near the headstones of Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard, the only known marked graves of massacre victims in the cemetery.

Scott Ellsworth, a member of the city’s physical investigation committee and professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Michigan said “we are looking for any and all Black massacre victims. We don’t know yet what we have and who we have.”

Brenda Alford, whose ancestors were harmed by the massacre and who serves on the Mass Graves Oversight Committee, said she hopes that the progress made in the search “will bring some sense of justice and healing to our community.”

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