Researchers expect to begin exhumation of remains believed to be those of people killed in Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre in early June — perhaps a century to the day after they were interred — state archeologist Kary Stackelbeck said Tuesday.
“What we have been proposing is trying to aim for a starting date in early June,” she said during a Zoom meeting of the committee overseeing the search for unmarked burials from the 1921 massacre. “Many of our researchers who have been engaged up to this point will be available. Some will not. That’s one of the vagaries of trying to get a lot of individuals together.”
Last fall, researchers found what they said appear to be 12 badly decomposed coffins fitted tightly into a trench in what was once Oaklawn’s Black paupers’ field. Based on written evidence, the manner of burial and two nearby tombstones, the scientists believe the remains are likely those of Black men killed in the May 31-June 1 fighting that culminated in the destruction of Tulsa’s African American Greenwood section.
It is believed the remains, if they are those of massacre victims, were buried on or around June 2.
Stackelbeck said the exhumation process could begin as early as June 1 and is likely to take four to six weeks, depending on weather and what is found.
Deputy Mayor Amy Brown said the exhumation will require “additional archeological services” for which the city will issue a request for proposals later this week.
The city also likely will be issuing a request for proposals for DNA analysis services. The committee agreed Tuesday night to hear from an expert on the subject but appeared eager to go forward with testing the Oaklawn remains for genetic material.
Those remains are expected to be skeletal, but University of Florida forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, a member of the research team, said she is fairly optimistic that DNA can be recovered.
Stubblefield warned, however, that genetic material in century-old remains can be badly degraded or contaminated.
“We won’t know until we start testing,” she said.
No member of the current research team is trained in DNA analysis, which is why those services must be contracted.
Brown also informed the committee that University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Geological Survey researchers hope to begin subsurface scanning at Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens in south Tulsa. Once a Blacks-only cemetery, it has long been suggested as a possible burial location for riot dead.
Records indicate that at least 18 African Americans killed in the massacre were buried in Oaklawn, although the location has long since been forgotten.
The location of two nearby tombstones bearing the names of two men known to have been killed in the massacre has been one of the few clues.
The body of one of those men, Ed Lockard, wasn’t discovered until several days after the 18 burials were reported, leading to speculation about whether he was buried separately or the trench was left open for additional bodies.
The research team says it believes the area to be excavated this summer is large enough to contain 30 sets of remains. The site will also be carefully examined for clues, such as bits of clothing or bullets, as to whether the grave is indeed related to the massacre.
The committee said Tuesday that remains exhumed at Oaklawn will be temporarily reinterred there until plans for a permanent memorial are completed.
Related video and gallery: Mass grave found during a search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre