Investigators Unearth Mass Grave During Search for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Victims

Anne Branigin
·4 min read

Days after starting the second phase of a months-long search to find the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a forensic team uncovered at least 10 bodies found in an unmarked mass grave. The remains—10 wooden coffins buried in the same large pit—were found in a portion of Oaklawn Cemetery on Wednesday, close to two headstones marking the graves of known massacre victims.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who in 2018 proposed looking for victims of the massacre—one of the worst episodes of racial violence in the nation’s history—told reporters in a Wednesday news conference that researchers must still identify “the nature of that mass grave and identify who is in it,” according to CNN.

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“What we do know, as of today, is that there is a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery where we have no record of anyone being buried,” he said.

Much of the remains had deteriorated, University of Florida forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield told the Associated Press. Stubblefield, a descendant of a massacre survivor, is helping with the excavation.

“Those skeletal remains are not in great condition,” state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said. “They’re not the worst condition we have seen.. but they’re not the best.”

While researchers have to remain cautious, Stackelbeck told the AP, “we have a high degree of confidence that this is one of the locations we were looking for.”

Neither the coffins nor the remains have been moved. Another set of remains were found nearby on Tuesday.

The discovery marks the latest turn in a nearly century-long saga, which began when a white mob attempted to lynch a young Black man over allegations he attacked a white woman. A group of Black men defended the boy against the mob, sparking a fight that the mob escalated into a two-day long riot. White vigilantes, alongside Tulsa police and the National Guard, razed the Greenwood District, a Black neighborhood so prosperous it was known at the time as Black Wall Street.

Over the course of May 31 and June 1, 1921, up to 300 Black Tulsans were killed and many more displaced. Forty square blocks of Greenwood—home to residential areas and thriving Black businesses—were burned to the ground.

As the New York Times reports, city officials forbade funerals, and victims of the racial violence were buried hastily “without death certificates or other records.”

Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian who has worked on the recovery of the Tulsa riot graves for decades, told the AP in December that many victims were buried in mass graves while their surviving family members were detained under martial law. The survivors were never told “whether their loved one died or where they were buried” the AP writes.

One exception is the “Original 18”—victims identified in a ledger from a white-owned funeral home billing the city for a group of burials. The document listed the names of 13 victims, and another five unnamed ones, noting the cause of death was “gunshot wounds.” But it didn’t list where the victims had been buried.

Researchers believe the site where the mass grave was discovered on Wednesday could be where some of the “Original 18” are buried.

City officials hope the discovery of the victims can provide some sense of closure to a city that has long struggled to grapple with its racist past, particularly as the violence of 1921 receives more international attention. The massacre has been a central part of two recent TV shows, Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, and NBA stars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are producing two separate documentaries on the crisis.

But Tulsa native Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney who is currently representing living survivors of the massacre in a lawsuit, says the city needs to go even further with its reckoning.

“Nearly 100 years after the massacre, Black people in Tulsa are far more likely than their white counterparts to experience poverty, police violence, and incarceration,” Solomon-Simmons wrote in a recent op-ed for The Root. He noted that two survivors of the massacre, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle and 106-year-old Viola Fletcher have “yet to receive a cent” for the losses they’ve endured, in spite of the government’s role in perpetuating the massacre.

In the meantime, Greenwood itself has yet to recover from the devastation. Earlier this year, the neighborhood’s chamber of commerce started a GoFundMe to help rebuild “Black Wall Street.” As of October 22, it had raised a little more than $36,000 of its $1 million goal.

“The fires will continue to burn,” Solomon-Simmons wrote, “unless people with public platforms—whether in the entertainment industry, in government office, on the campaign trail—use their voice and power to support the Black Tulsa community’s fight for reparations.”