Human remains found Tuesday morning in a section of Oaklawn Cemetery thought to contain unmarked graves from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre may or may not be connected to that century-old catastrophe, researchers say.
“We are still in the process of analyzing those remains to the best of our ability, to get a better idea of what (went on) with this individual,” State Archeologist Kary Stackelbeck said Tuesday afternoon.
She said the remains of a single person were found in a casket in a section of the cemetery researchers believe may contain the bodies of 18 Black men killed in the violence of May 31-June 1, 1921. The burials were recorded in funeral home records and news reports but not their exact location in the cemetery.
The area in question was known as a pauper’s field, and many of the graves were either never marked or the markers were lost long ago.
Stackelbeck, asked when the research team might know whether the remains are from the massacre, replied: “That is a very good question. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer at this time.”
The research team began opening a second possible grave site just feet away from the first early Tuesday afternoon.
All remains will be left in place pending exhumation orders, Stackelbeck said.
The researchers from the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office, University of Florida and elsewhere have indicated that they are unaccustomed to having their often slow and painstaking work watched so closely by reporters and others seeking ready answers.
“Normally, we like to have an opportunity to absorb all of the information, to digest it and do our interpretations before we turn it around,” Stackelbeck said Tuesday.
The researchers had hoped to go several days without speaking directly to the press, but that became untenable once a tarpaulin screen was hastily erected along the south side of the excavation site Tuesday morning.
Reporters were told the screen is intended to block them, photographers and the general public from obtaining images of accidentally exposed human remains.
This week’s exploration in the southwest corner of Oaklawn Cemetery is about 40 yards away from where a test excavation was done last summer. Subsurface scanning equipment and oral history suggested that site as a potential mass burial location, but two weeks of digging revealed it to be a former creek bed and road that had been filled in with 10 feet of dirt and debris.
Throughout a brief press conference Tuesday afternoon, Steckelbeck made it clear that the researchers intended to be very cautious about releasing information about their discoveries.
“Clearly, we’re in a cemetery, and we have many other people buried here who were not massacre victims. We’re very mindful of that,” she said when asked about indications that the remains were of a massacre victim or, conversely, someone who did not die at that time. “We’re kind of premature in being able to provide a lot of details, but clearly the main thing we’ll be focusing on is whether the remains are in a condition that allows for any indication of trauma.”
Asked about the condition of the remains, Stacklebeck replied, “I’d say variable.”
“I have not been able to put eyes on every single element that’s been recovered, so I don’t want to speak out of turn,” she said. “I don’t have an answer on that right now.”
Either way, Stackelbeck said, the discovery “gives me reason for optimism because our field methods are proving out … (and) the fact that we have human remains that are discoverable and potentially recoverable.”
Gallery: Race massacre researchers begin 2nd round of searching for burial sites at Oaklawn Cemetery