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Mass grave found in search for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims; 10 coffins found in trench at Oaklawn Cemetery

Mass grave found in search for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims; 10 coffins found in trench at Oaklawn Cemetery


Update (10 a.m. Thursday): Test excavation and core sampling efforts are expected to conclude Thursday, Oct. 22. 

An update is planned for 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

Ten badly decayed coffins apparently laid in pairs in a trench decades ago have been found in Oaklawn Cemetery, officials said Wednesday.

A research team searching for unmarked burials from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre said the discovery is consistent with reports that 18 Black men killed on May 31-June 1, 1921, were buried in Oaklawn.

The researchers said the arrangement of the coffins meets the definition of a mass grave, although they can’t say for certain that the burials are connected to the massacre.

And it might be awhile before they can.

That’s because the coffins and what little the researchers have seen of the remains inside are in such poor condition that they can’t be fully examined without being removed, and removal will require some legal work and careful planning.

It was unclear when an exhumation might occur.

“When you go to remove something like this, you only get one chance,” said forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield in commenting on the fragility of the find.

Another factor is weather. With Friday expected to be wet and cold and with similar weather continuing next week, State Archeologist Kary Stackelbeck said the research team intends to document the discovery the best it can and then cover it back up until the remains can be exhumed.

“We have not done anything to expose the remains other than those that have been encountered through the process of the initial excavation,” Stackelbeck said Wednesday afternoon. “We are intentionally leaving these in place and not ... exposing them to the elements.”

Stackelbeck said the condition of the bones that have been examined, the high clay content of the soil and the fragility of the coffins complicate excavation.

“Our original expectation was that as we encountered human remains, we would leave the bones pedestaled, resting on a small piece of dirt,” Stackelbeck said. “Knowing what we now know, ... we do not feel it is appropriate to expose those bones. Instead, we believe it is most appropriate to defer that to a point in time when we are prepared for an exhumation.”

When that will be and what will be required were unclear Wednesday.

In the meantime, the team plans to further explore the area in the southwest corner of the cemetery for further burials.

Stackelbeck and historian Scott Ellsworth said Wednesday’s discovery is not inconsistent with funeral home and newspaper reports that 18 Black men killed in the massacre were buried in Oaklawn. Those reports do not say where the men were buried, although a June 3, 1921, Tulsa World story says they were buried “separately and in plain caskets.”

Likewise, Stackelbeck and Ellsworth said, it’s possible that the remains are of massacre victims other than the 18 — or people buried in that unusual fashion for some other reason.

Officials said they are uncertain whether an individual grave uncovered Monday and Tuesday only a few feet way is related to the trench burials. Stubblefield said a few elements of the single burial differ from the others, but she did not elaborate.

The excavation site is in a section of the cemetery known as an early potter’s field reserved mostly or entirely for African Americans. It includes what are believed to be several unmarked burial sites, although records are scant to nonexistent.

The location was thought to be a likely place because of two headstones in the area bearing the names of two men listed among the “original 18” who reportedly were buried in Oaklawn. It is unclear whether the other graves were ever marked.

Mayor G.T. Bynum, who ordered the search for unmarked burial places, said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference: “We have a lot of work to do to determine the nature of (this) mass grave and who is buried in it, but what we can say is that we have a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery where we have no record of anyone being buried.”

Video: Researchers discover remains at Oaklawn Cemetery in search for 1921 Race Massacre burials

Gallery: Mass grave found during a search for victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

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