Sue Ogrocki / AP
Investigators in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have completed their latest round of test excavations in search of the remains of black victims killed during a racial massacre nearly a century ago.
Tulsa officials said at least 11 coffins were discovered during four days of excavation in specific areas of the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery. It is one of the places where historians and researchers believe that there are mass graves derived from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
The newly discovered coffins are in addition to one previously thought to be in the section of the cemetery known as Original Site 18, bringing the total discovered to 12. The excavation was launched on monday.
While officials are hopeful these findings provide clues, they also caution that further investigation and testing must be conducted to determine whether they are conclusively associated with the tragic event.
Closer to getting answers
Historians say that 99 years ago, white mobs attacked an area of Tulsa known as the Greenwood District, killing between 150 and 300 black residents, while looting and burning businesses, houses and churches to the ground.
Many of the victims in the area, also called Black Wall Street, are believed to have been buried in mass graves, but few records of the massacre or burials exist.
“This is an incredible, incredible moment. We still have a lot of questions to answer,” said Kary Stackelbeck, Oklahoma state archaeologist and member of the excavation team. said at a press conference on Thursday.
He added that there are indicators that more remains may be present.
“We are definitely one step closer to getting answers,” he said.
Text excavations carried out until 2021
However, those answers will have to wait until at least next year.
Teams worked to document and photograph what had already been unearthed, including coffins, nails, and human remains, including bones, teeth, and skull fragments.
Investigators said they preserved the burial site by filling a portion of it with sand and laying plywood over the immediate area, before backfilling it with soil.
“We just have to wait a little longer to put the rest of the circumstances together, because these remains cannot be examined in place in the time frame that we have,” said Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist who also works on the project. .
She said the focus is now on compiling the necessary documents to present to a court for exhumation approval.
“So we want to appeal to a judge that we have reason to harass these unmarked individuals,” Stubblefield said.
Scott Ellsworth, a historian on the project, said he was “optimistic” after this week’s discoveries. He also said that it is an important moment not only for Tulsa, but for the country.
“This is the only time that an American level of government, municipal state or county has gone out to search for the hidden remains of victims of racial violence in American history,” Ellsworth said.
‘Who’s in it and how did they get there?’
Authorities hope to resume the search in 2021 when weather conditions permit. according to a city statement. He also said the preservation of the remains was “less than ideal”, adding that experts did not expose the remains for full excavation and analysis.
Mayor GT Bynum thanked Tulsa residents who said they “reversed nearly a century of conventional wisdom that this is something we don’t want to talk about,” speaking of the decades-long massacre.
“This generation of Tulsans is not doing that,” he added. “As we are at this stage where we are far enough away in this investigation to find a mass grave, now the question is who is in it and how did they get there.”
There were high hopes in July when the initial test excavation started in the Sexton area of Oaklawn Cemetery.
But after more than a week of searching, the city announced that it found no “evidence of human remains” in the excavated area. according to a statement.
That search got underway after scientists previously reported found “anomalies” in the cemetery that could indicate the existence of an unmarked cemetery.
Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Bibrary of Congress Via AP
The 1921 massacre, which took place between May 31 and June 1, was likely triggered after an elevator incident involving a black man and a white woman. according to a 2001 report.
The commission that studied the events determined that Dick Rowland probably accidentally stepped on the foot of Sarah Page, who screamed.
Rowland fled, according to the report, but was later caught, charged with sexual assault and jailed.
Later, the white mobs gathered in front of the Tulsa County courthouse demanding that Rowland be turned over to them, according to the report. The massacre began shortly after.