With exhumation of bodies possibly linked to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre set to begin June 1, it’s hard to predict how successful identification will be, a DNA expert told the project oversight committee Thursday.
“All we can do is give it a shot and see what we get,” said Robert Allen, a forensic sciences professor with Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.
“We’ve worked with samples of both bones and teeth that were exposed to the elements for 20 to 30 years. That’s not 100 years, though. So we’re in an uncharted area here, at least in my own experience.
“But all we can do is try and assess the quantity and quality of DNA we recover from those remains we analyze.”
Allen spoke as part of a presentation to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee at its regular monthly meeting, which was held virtually.
He talked to the group, which is overseeing the search for unmarked burials, about how identifying human remains through DNA works, and he suggested a possible plan for moving forward.
Officials are still targeting June 1 to begin exhumation of remains at Oaklawn Cemetery, they said.
Last fall, researchers found what they said appear to be 12 badly decomposed coffins in what was once Oaklawn’s Black paupers’ field.
They are believed to contain the remains of Black men killed in the May 31-June 1 fighting.
Records indicate that at least 18 African Americans who were killed in the massacre were buried in Oaklawn.
Allen said he recommends a two-phase process once the remains are exhumed. The first phase would be to collect DNA samples from the remains and determine the samples’ integrity.
The OSU Center for Health Sciences has offered to donate its services for that initial phase, officials said.
The second phase would be to contract with a lab partner to help with identification.
City officials will conduct a bidding process to find a lab.
“I think companies are going to jump at this because of the notoriety of the project,” Allen said.
Deputy Mayor Amy Brown said the legal paperwork required for exhumation has been submitted to the state.
Also, the city received nine responses to requests for proposals for additional archaeological services, she said.
“We’ll be reviewing those responses in the coming weeks and making a selection to bring some additional manpower on board to help with this project,” Brown said.
The project will also be expanding to a second cemetery in June — Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens in south Tulsa.
Brown said the Oklahoma Archeological Survey has set a date of June 14-16 to begin subsurface scanning there for possible unmarked graves.
Once a Blacks-only cemetery, Rolling Oaks has been suggested as a possible burial location for massacre dead.
Kavin Ross, chairman of the oversight committee, said he’s excited about the progress.
“The world is watching us, and our children are watching us,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing right now when everybody’s learning at the same time.
“And I think we are at the right place at the right time on our watch to make things happen.”
The slides and other information presented by Allen at the meeting can be found on the project website at cityoftulsa.org/1921graves.