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In-depth: What researchers are looking for in the search for victims from the Tulsa Race Massacre

Day two of the second excavation in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation
Posted at 9:24 PM, Mar 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 11:11:10-05

TULSA, Okla. — The search continues for missing victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Researchers found 34 burials last June at Oaklawn Cemetery and exhumed remains of 19 individuals.

“We’re making such progress," said Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist working on the project. "I’m just very pleased.”

Research teams shared their latest findings from Oaklawn Cemetery during a meeting Tuesday.

They’re analyzing remains from 14 adults, eight men and six women, exhumed from section 20, the African American section of Potter’s Field at the cemetery. There, they found artifacts such as the base of a glass bottle that dates back to 1921. One burial site, number 27, showed a man in his early 20s who died from multiple gunshot wounds. They still don’t know if that man died during the massacre, but these findings are a step in the right direction in the investigation.

“The fact that we recovered burial 27 and then also recovered the bullets that led to his demise and were fired unfortunately by somebody who brought about his death, those to me were also extremely, extremely compelling," said Dr. Kary Stackelbeck, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma.

Dr. Stubblefield said they’re primarily looking for plain coffins that contain men. This is based on newspaper accounts and death certificates from the Race Massacre which detail 18 Black men who were buried at Oaklawn.

During the update Tuesday evening, members of the Public Oversight Committee questioned why they aren’t also looking at exhuming more women and children in the future.

“Could there be women and children victims buried there? Yes." Dr. Stubblefield said. "Do we know, do we have any evidence? No. Do we have evidence of any burials? Yes. So in that context, I’m focusing on those because the males [detailed in historical documents] are conclusive evidence of the Race Massacre and those victims being buried there.”

Dr. Stubblefield said the tops of many caskets aren't fully intact so it's easy for them to see inside without moving the remains. She said they would investigate caskets that are not plain if they contain bullets.

Samples from the 14 are now being sent to a forensics lab in Salt Lake City, Utah. Once there, they’ll work to extract DNA, which could be a difficult task. Dr. Stubblefield said these are challenging samples after being buried for decades in a wet environment. But those samples, along with DNA from living relatives, are the key to getting answers. Which will take a lot of research.

“It is a process of identifying families through databases that are accessible, DNA databases accessible," Dr. Stubblefield said. "And even then those matches will be third or fourth cousin level matches most likely.”

The research team wants to excavate more of Oaklawn Cemetery as well as survey other areas. They’re still in the planning and budgeting stages with the city. There is no timeline for when those projects could begin.

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