Archaeological Work Resumes At Oaklawn Cemetery In Race Massacre Grave Investigation

Jul 13, 2020

A team of archaelogists has resumed excavation work at Oaklawn Cemetery in a search for potential mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

"Why did it take 99 years?" Mayor G.T. Bynum said, repeating a reporter's question at a press conference Monday. "I think, first, there was a concerted cover-up of this that involved city leaders and business leaders in this community."

Bynum said he couldn't speak for those in power before him.

"I can only say that as soon as we had the opportunity, and this generation of Tulsans had the opportunity to do something, we are doing it," he said.

Kary Stackelbeck, the state archaeologist of Oklahoma, said that a previous investigation using ground-penetrating radar revealed an "anomaly" in the location currently being excavated that appears consistent with a mass grave.

"The excavations that we are embarking on today are intended to open up just a small window, if you will, within that larger anomaly in order to assess whether or not we actually do have human remains that are present," Stackelbeck said

Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist who sits on the 1921 Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, said she was cautiously optimistic the search would be fruitful.

"It's not 100%, but it's a very high level of certainty, enough that, yes, we should dig there," Stubblefield said. "I mean, without a doubt we should test that site."

"But it's not 100%, so we don't just scrape it all off," Stubblefield added. "Because you don't disturb dead people just because you feel like it."

Responding to a question about whether justice for massacre victims would include reparations for descendants, Bynum said now is not the right time for that conversation.

"A lot of folks want to leap ahead and talk about reparations," Bynum said. "I really want us, before we get to that discussion, to just try and find these folks. It has taken, unfortunately, 99 years for this community to even get behind trying to do that. So I would like us to do that before we move on to what that justice may look like."

"I think there are a lot of different things out there," Bynum continued. "There are insurance companies that did not pay claims. There are people who weren't prosecuted who should have been. But step one is just trying to find the victims."

The City of Tulsa is expected to hold daily updates on the excavation, which is estimated to take anywhere between three and six days. Livestreams of the work and daily media updates are available at a dedicated Facebook page set up by the City of Tulsa.