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Amid Massacre Centennial Ceremonies, Tulsa Also Prepares For Mass Grave Exhumation

Chris Polansky
Heavy machinery at Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 19, 2020, at the end of a test excavation in search of remains of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims.

With dignitaries, massacre survivors, international media and others converging on Tulsa for the May 31 centennial anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, researchers and city officials are preparing for more than just remembrances.

The city on Monday released new details regarding the exhumation of remains discovered last year in a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery.

"On June 1, experts will start with mapping and site preparation and expect to begin excavations around 10 a.m. The excavation work will begin first with heavy machinery to remove the upper few feet of soil that lies over the burials. After the first day, experts intend to work at Oaklawn Cemetery Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.," the city said in a news release.

"Due to the size of the grave shaft and anticipated number of burials, experts expect the excavation could take weeks or even months depending on the needs in the field," according to the release.

Mayor G.T. Bynum and members of the graves investigation public oversight and physical investigation committees will hold a press conference shortly after work begins.

Historian Scott Ellsworth, a member of the physical investigation committee, discussed the work during a Thursday appearance on Public Radio Tulsa's StudioTulsa.

"Greenwood citizens didn't find out what happened to their brother or their father or their son," Ellsworth said. "Nobody told them where their loved ones were buried. And so this is going to be a chance for the city to bring these people back home."

"They're all murder victims, every one of them, and they need to be buried with honor and they need to be memorialized with honor," Ellsworth said. "It's my hope that we have an appropriate memorial that may be something like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. But I think it'll become a national shrine."

Researchers said the exhumation is necessary for a full investigation and confirmation that the remains belong to massacre victims. They hope to be able to use DNA from the remains to locate living descendants. 

The first day of exhumation, June 1, coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the second day of the racist attack on Black Tulsans that left as many as 300 dead and much of Greenwood destroyed. 

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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