Forensic scientists and archaeologists investigating a mass grave near the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre have unearthed skeletal remains, including that of a Black man with multiple gunshot wounds to his head and shoulder, officials announced Friday.
The remains were initially found in October when authorities were excavating the Black section of Oaklawn Cemetery as part of the investigation into a search for mass graves that may be connected to the massacre. But they were left in the ground until city officials received permission from a judge to exhume them for forensic analysis.
In June, after the excavation was resumed, scientists discovered 35 coffins in the unmarked mass grave. The remains of 19 people were sent to a science lab on-site, not far from the mass grave. So far, officials said they have completed preliminary analysis on nine of those human remains.
“Five of those nine were juveniles,” said Phoebe Stubblefield, the lead forensic anthropologist working on the investigation. “The remaining four are adults. One was an older female. The other were adults, who range in age from 30s to their 40s.”
Stubblefield said the analysis has also looked for clues of the race. “Ancestry so far, when we can detect it, has been of African descent,” Stubblefield said. “We are looking for features … determining ancestry by the shape of the skull.”
She said one set of the remains examined was that of a Black man who was buried in a plain casket in a section of the city-owned cemetery set aside for indigent residents.
Stubblefield told reporters during a news conference Friday that one man had a bullet still lodged in his left shoulder area.
“He does have associated trauma,” she said. “He has multiple projectile wounds.”
The complete analysis of the remains found in the mass grave may take several weeks. “We still have details to work out on the other males that we did exhume,” Stubblefield said.
Last July, Tulsa officials began digging for mass graves. The first “test excavation” ended without finding human remains, but the city expanded its search. On June 1, the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the city expanded its search for mass graves in Oaklawn and a new pit was excavated in another section of the cemetery.
The remains were found in a section of the cemetery called “Original 18,” where officials believe the bodies of 18 Black massacre victims who had been listed on a funeral home ledger were buried in unmarked graves.
Kristi Williams, a member of the Tulsa Mass Graves Oversight Committee, said she is seeking more answers and awaiting more results. “Right now,” Williams said, “the priority is to find out who these remains belong to and why were they there undocumented.”
Scientists spent the last three weeks mapping the mass gravesite by using machinery to remove the top layer of soil. The scientists have also conducted hand excavation, using metal detectors to screen the soil.
State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said Friday that this phase of the excavation is now complete. She said no grave markers existed at the site and no records indicated that bodies had been buried there.
The Tulsa Race Massacre began May 31, 1921, after Dick Rowland a Black teenager, who was working as a shoe shiner in downtown Tulsa, was accused of assaulting a White girl in an elevator. A White mob descended on Greenwood, a Black community so affluent it was called “Black Wall Street.”
Historians believe that more than 300 Black people were killed during the massacre. Thirty-five-square blocks of Greenwood were destroyed by fire. More than 1,250 homes, churches, schools, businesses, a hospital and library were destroyed. Massacre survivors reported seeing bodies tossed in mass graves, into the muddy Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to tally the fatalities.
No White person was ever arrested for the violence. For decades after the massacre, according to historians, city officials and leaders orchestrated a deliberate cover-up to try to hide the massacre. The massacre was left out of textbooks in Oklahoma, removed from library records, and few people talked about it.
In 2018, Tulsa Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum reopened a city investigation to a search for potential mass graves after a Washington Post story detailed the unresolved questions from a 2000 investigation that did not include a search for mass graves.
“The destruction of Black Wall Street and the cover-up after it have lasting effects until this day,” said Bynum. “We can’t go back in time to change that. But what we can do is to do right by them in 2021.”
Bynum said the objective of the exhumation process in the mass grave would be “to see if these are in fact victims of the massacre. And, ideally, be able to recover DNA that will allow us to connect their remains with their descendants. And their descendants can finally know what happened to their family members.”
City officials said that after the forensic analysis is completed, the remains will be temporarily reinterred at Oaklawn Cemetery, while the Mass Graves Public Oversight Committee, which consists of massacre descendants and community members, make recommendations on permanent burial for the victims.
As remains were exhumed, descendants of massacre victims and Black activists have gathered at Oaklawn Cemetery. There, they prayed over the remains, which were draped in black velvet cloths and placed in boxes.
The activists then carried the boxes marked “Human Remains.” Three people on each side — much like pallbearers — walked in slow, lock-step procession across the cemetery to a temporary lab site constructed not far from the mass grave.
J. Kavin Ross, a massacre descendant and chair of the Mass Graves Oversight Committee, said, “This process has been a very sobering and very powerful experience. We are hopeful for more findings … I’m anxious to give them a proper rest.”