The discovery of a mass of unmarked graves, including children, in the search of Oaklawn Cemetery for 1921 Race Massacre victims is disturbing.
So far, the search for mass graves has uncovered 28 coffins. It’s troubling and sad so many former Tulsans were buried without markers or identification.
But, it’s going to take patience to determine if the unknown burials are victims from the century-old massacre.
Examinations look for patterns in manner and place of burial, signs of trauma and numbers of men, say state Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck and forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield.
Two trenches have been uncovered; one is near the graves of two known massacre victims. Still, it’s possible the remains are from different events.
The unmarked graves may or may not be related to the massacre. It’s worth remembering that the city was also dealing with a deadly influenza epidemic in the same time period, which might also have led to atypical burial patterns.
The graves are consistent with reports that 18 men were killed in the massacre and buried at Oaklawn. This part of the cemetery was known as an early potter’s field for Black residents.
No matter the result, the search remains important. We should all hope that it gets us closer to a truer narrative of what happened in 1921.
The wait is hard, particularly as the new graves open troubling questions. While most remains are in good shape, some answers may be difficult to obtain due to deterioration, particularly in the case of an infant..
Meanwhile, examination has started in the Rolling Oaks Cemetery in south Tulsa. Some oral histories say the formerly all-Black cemetery was the location for burial of massacre victims.
No matter the outcome, the effort is a worthy and important use of public funding and time. It is never too late to seek justice. The search for truth in history is valid and necessary, no matter where it leads.
When Mayor G.T. Bynum announced plans in 2018 to begin the search, he said, “I think if there are mass graves there, the citizens of Tulsa deserve to know and the victims and their families deserve to know.”
Those words continue to hold true.
The massacre took place over two days 100 years ago followed by about 80 years of cover-ups and denials.
Getting to truth starts by getting through that cover-up, and it will surely take patience and time.
We credit the city for staying the course and confronting the past. We also thank those who have shown up in prayerful reverence to ensure the dignity of the dead.