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Scientists Discover Unmarked Coffins During Search For 1921 Tulsa Massacre Victims

Workers reinforce the sides of an excavation site during the search for a potential unmarked mass grave from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Okla., in July.
Sue Ogrocki
Workers reinforce the sides of an excavation site during the search for a potential unmarked mass grave from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Okla., in July.

Researchers in Tulsa, Okla., have concluded their latest round of test excavations in the search for remains of Black victims killed during a race massacre nearly a century ago.

Tulsa officials said at least 11 coffins were discovered over four days of digging in specific areas of the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery. It is one of the locations historians and researchers believe mass graves exist stemming from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The newly discovered coffins are in addition to one that was previously thought to be in the section of the cemetery known as the Original 18 site, bringing the total discovered to 12. The dig got underway on Monday.

While officials are hopeful these findings will provide clues, they also caution that more research and tests must be done to determine if they are conclusively associated with the tragic event.

Closer to getting answers

Historians say that 99 years ago, white mobs targeted an area of Tulsa known as the Greenwood District, killing between 150 and 300 Black residents, while looting and burning businesses, homes and churches to the ground.

Many of the victims from the area, also called Black Wall Street, are thought to have been buried in mass graves, but there are few recordds that exist from the massacre or the burials.

"This is just an incredible, incredible moment. We still have many questions to answer," Kary Stackelbeck, State Archaeologist of Oklahoma and a member of the excavation team said at a press conference Thursday.

She added there are indicators that more remains may be present.

"We are definitely a step closer to getting answers," she said.

Text Excavations Done Until 2021

Those answers will have to wait until at least next year though.

Crews worked to document and photograph what had already been unearthed, including caskets, nails, and human remains including bone, teeth and skull fragments.

None of the remains recovered had headstones, Tulsa World reports, which adds that researchers were looking for as many as 18 Black men.

Researchers said they preserved the burial site by filling a portion of it with sand and laying plywood over the immediate area, before refilling it with dirt.

"We just have to wait a little while longer to get the rest of the circumstances together, because these remains can't be examined in place in the time frame we have," said Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist, also working on the project.

She said the focus now turns to compiling the necessary documents to submit to a court for exhumation approval.

"So we want to appeal to a judge that we have grounds for disturbing these unmarked individuals," Stubblefield said.

Scott Ellsworth, a historian with the project, said he was "optimistic" after the discoveries this week. He also said it is an important moment for not just Tulsa, but for the country.

"This is the only time any level of American government, municipal state or county has ever gone out to search the hidden remains of victims of racial violence in American history," Ellsworth said.

'Who's in it and how did they get there?'

Officials expect to resume the search in 2021 when weather conditions permit, according to a statement from the city. It also said preservation of the remains was "less than ideal" and added that experts did not expose the remains for a full excavation and analysis.

Mayor G.T. Bynum thanked the residents of Tulsa who he said "reversed nearly a century of conventional wisdom of this being something we don't want to talk about," speaking of the decades-old massacre.

"This generation of Tulsans is not doing that," he added. "As we are at this stage where we are far enough through this investigation that we have now found a mass grave, now the question is who's in it and how did they get there?"

There were high hopes in July when the initial test excavation got underway in the Sexton area of Oaklawn Cemetery.

But after more than a week of searching, the city announced it found "no evidence of human remains" in the excavated area, according to a statement.

That search got underway after scientists previously reported they found "anomalies" in the cemetery that could indicate the existence of an unmarked burial ground.

The 1921 Massacre, which took place between May 31 and June 1, was most likely triggered after an incident in an elevator involving a Black man and a white woman, according to a 2001 report.

The commission that studied the events determined that Dick Rowland likely accidentally stepped on the foot of Sarah Page, who screamed.

Rowland fled, according the report, but was later caught, accused of sexual assault and jailed.

White mobs later gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse demanding Rowland be released to them, the report states. The massacre started soon afterward.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.