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Oaklawn Cemetery Exhumation Could Begin On Exact Date Of Race Massacre Centennial

Chris Polansky
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (left) speaks with forensic anthropologist Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield after an Oct. 19, 2020, press conference at the Tulsa Fire Museum discussing the mass grave discovered in Oaklawn Cemetery.

City officials and members of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation's Physical Investigation Committee said Tuesday that exhumation of remains discovered last year in a mass grave could begin as soon as June 1 -- which would be exactly 100 years since the second day of the attack.

"We haven't solidified that date exactly at this point in time, but that's what our goal is right now," said Dr. Kary Stackelbeck, state archaeologist of Oklahoma, during a virtual meeting of the investigation's public oversight committee. 

"We would expect that the excavations could take as long as four to six weeks, just kind of depending on the number of individuals we encounter and some of the issues that may come up as a result of weather that we can't predict," Stackelbeck said.

"And the ensuing analysis would, of course, take a longer period of time," she said.

In October, investigators discovered a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery consistent with what they believe to be a burial site for victims of the racist attack on Black Tulsans occurring on May 31st and June 1st, 1921. The exhumation and analysis being proposed for this summer did not proceed at the time due to legal restrictions and planning needs.

Under state law, an exhumation requires a reinterment plan submitted to the Oklahoma State Department of Health with a licensed funeral director overseeing the work. 

Deputy Mayor Amy Brown said the city had contracted with Keith Biglow Funeral Directors, a corporation with locations in Tulsa, Okmulgee, Muskogee and Boley for the procedure.

While some on the oversight committee expressed concern in January over the prospect of victims' remains being reinterred in Oaklawn after being unceremoniously buried there a century ago, Chair Kavin Ross endorsed the idea Tuesday while noting it would only be temporary.

"As a temporary measure, we all agree that the reinterment should be back in Oaklawn until such time as a more suitable, permanent spot where the majority of the committee believes would be more fitting and suiting for those who perished in 1921," Ross said.

"The world will be watching us, but what better way to set a better example of what -- this is what doing the right thing looks like, and we can not wait on indecisiveness or just people arguing different points. We all are passionate here on this measure," Ross said.

Brown also announced that the owner of Rolling Oaks Cemetery, where researchers believe is another possible site where victims could have been buried, had agreed to allow non-invasive geophysical surveying like the kind performed at Oaklawn, which yielded an "anomaly" that led to the uncovering of the mass grave there. That work could also begin as soon as June, Brown said.

While the exhumation and analysis is necessary before confirming for certain that the remains in Oaklawn belong to massacre victims, researchers feel confident.

"I think that there's a high level of confidence on my committee that these are indeed massacre victims, and that we should be able to determine that fairly quickly," said Scott Ellsworth, a historian on the physical investigation committee.

Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist, said circumstantial evidence such as dress, trauma, artifacts, ancestry markers and sex could be used to reach a conclusion -- though not all victims of the massacre were male.

"I looked around, I looked through the death certificates [from 1921], and I did a little bit of comparison to recent riots like the L.A. riots, the Rodney King riots, and what we see with rampaging and marauding, a lot of the victims tend to be male," Stubblefield said. 

"But I don't expect this particular feature, this mass grave, to only have males, because there's other things I've noticed about the information about the race massacre," she said, noting that Black women were noted at the time as injured and hospitalized.

"I don't know what exactly what we'll find, but I'm not reserving it to only males," Stubblefield said. "Because I just think it's a little unlikely -- we're talking about pillagers. These are the worst kind of pirates, you know, when you read the narratives. There's going to be raping and murdering, not just shooting guys."

Brown said the city would be putting out a request-for-proposal on Thursday for additional archaeological contract workers to assist with the exhumation process, which she said would be more intensive work than the text excavation done last year.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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