TULSA – Another 15 coffins have been discovered in a Tulsa cemetery as archeologists resume excavation work on a mass grave believed to hold the remains of unidentified Tulsa Race Massacre victims.
With the recent discovery of the bodies, the total number of graves located in Oaklawn Cemetery’s mass burial site has risen to 27, said Kary Stackelbeck, state archaeologist.
“That tells us we have more work to do,” Stackelbeck said earlier this week. “We are very likely to uncover additional graves as we continue to move our excavation further to the west.”
Stackelbeck said archaeologists have not eliminated the possibility that some of the graves may be associated with the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.
“So we have to remain cautious and not get too ahead of ourselves in terms of our interpretations,” Stackelbeck said. “So we are working with our multiple hypotheses about what can explain the presence of a mass grave within this portion of the cemetery.”
Off and on for more than two decades now, teams with the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey have been trying to piece together what happened to Black victims of the 1921 massacre in Tulsa’s Greenwood District.
In October, crews first located the graves of at least 12 individuals inside the mass burial site, but it wasn’t until June 1 — exactly 100 years since the two-day massacre — that they returned to the site to begin the slow process of exhuming the bodies and to search for additional remains.
Officially, 38 deaths have been confirmed after a white mob murdered, looted and burned the Greenwood District over about 16 hours starting on May 31, 1921. But historians now estimate between 100 and 300 may have been killed, with many of the Black victims quickly buried in unmarked mass graves without a coroner’s report or a death certificate.
Crews have been using a backhoe to expose a larger area west of the current gravesite in hopes of exposing additional burial sites, Stackelbeck said. Other archaeologists are using hand tools to remove soil from the top of coffins and from around the skeletal remains held within, she said.
“It’s slower going than what we’ve seen in terms of the pace of excavation of the dirt that’s coming out of the ground than what we’ve had previously because we’re clearly not using the backhoe, but it is going to be very cautious, careful work,” Stackelbeck said.
She said any remains will be documented in place. They’ll use photogrammetry and plan to stitch together a series of photographs in order to create a 3D model of the individual contained within the particular grave.
Phoebe Stubblefield, the lead forensic anthropologist on the mass grave excavation work, said skeletal analyses were slated to begin this week when the last of her equipment arrived.
Stubblefield will work with excavators to ensure that the remains are stabilized not only for the purposes of documentation, but also for the exhumation process. She said the remains would be stored temporarily in long, flat, cardboard-like boxes.
The boxes will allow them to safely process the remains and then store them until their final redisposition.
Kavin Ross, chair of 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee, said all eyes remain on Tulsa as crews begin the slow process of unearthing the “pioneering Tulsans from (their) slumber over 100 years.”
“We’re going to, one by one, take them out of the earth, drape them in a black velvet cloth, and we will slowly walk their remains over to our lab for further analysis,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.