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Report reveals results of latest search for mass graves in Tulsa

Posted at 5:53 AM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-02 00:10:29-05

TULSA, Okla. — After a lengthy investigation and unearthing dozens of graves, the 1921 Graves Physical Investigation Committee presented its findings from the 2021 excavation of Oaklawn Cemetery.

Researchers said they’ve made some progress in the search for victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The research team exhumed remains from 19 people last summer at Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery. Of those remains, there are eight adult men, six adult women and five children.

One of the men was in his early 20s and had at least three gunshot wounds, including wounds to his shoulder and head. That's exactly what researchers were looking for in their search for victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“It has one burial that meets the criteria," said Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist on the research team.

Despite that finding, researchers still can’t say for sure if any of the deaths can be tied to the Race Massacre.

They focused their testing on the 14 adult remains. They’re now being sent to a forensics lab in Salt Lake City, Utah where scientists will work to extract DNA.

“Essentially we’re going to find out how much DNA is there, if it’s male, and the quality of that DNA," said Danny Hellwig, lab director for Utah Coalition Intermountain Forensics.

A key part of identifying these remains is having DNA samples from relatives. Investigators plan to use genealogical databases and services to find family members. They encourage those who may have family ties to get involved and share DNA.

“If you have an interest, or suspicion, of a relationship to these remains or are trying to contribute to our knowledge of the Tulsa genetic family," Dr. Stubblefield said.

Next, the team wants to expand its search at Oaklawn Cemetery. Specifically where they’ve been looking in Section 20, the African American section of Potter’s Field. They say there appears to have been substantial alterations to the area.

“Extending to cover more of the new Potter’s Field area and focusing our exhumations on simple casket individuals that are male as well as we can tell," Dr. Stubblefield. said.

Researchers also want to survey two other possible gravesites at Newblock Park and a site near the Arkansas river known as "The Canes".

There’s no timeline for those projects getting started. The DNA sampling is expected to take several months.

Four sites were identified in the city's examination:

  • Oaklawn Cemetery,
  • Newblock Park
  • an additional area near Newblock Park
  • Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens

In 2018, the city established three goals for the re-examination: public oversight, historical context, and the physical evidence investigation.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said as a city, they are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process, filling the gaps in Tulsa's history and providing healing and justice to the community. He says this is the right thing to do for the African-American heritage and the families affected in Tulsa.

“The only way to move forward in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is by seeking the truth honestly. As we open this investigation 99 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to uncover," said Bynum.

Monday's meeting revealed the findings from months of excavation and research.

The Public Oversight Committee was created to ensure transparency and community engagement throughout the investigation. The committee is made up of descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre and leaders in Tulsa's African-American community.

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