Search for 1921 Mass Graves Beneath IDL Unlikely, Archaeologist Says

Oct 9, 2019

A team of investigators continued searching Oaklawn Cemetery on Wednesday for evidence of mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. They expect to be finished there by Friday.
Credit Matt Trotter / KWGS

A team of investigators continued searching Oaklawn Cemetery on Wednesday for mass graves containing potential victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

While the search will eventually cover three additional sites, the area beneath the Inner Dispersal Loop was recently brought up as a potential place to look. Scott Hammerstedt with the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey said they have thought about the IDL.

"The problem with doing any work there, primarily for us, is the radar pulse goes through the ground but is really affected by metal, and the fact that there’s so much rebar that’s put in the concrete in highways, especially in those bridges, is going to cause a lot of problems for our machine, and I just don’t think we’re going to be able to penetrate it," Hammerstedt said.

After delays for radio interference with their equipment and weather, the team hopes to finish work at Oaklawn by Friday.

No strong evidence has been found yet, but if it is, acting on that information will be up to the public oversight committee.

"I think the first step is to try to figure out if anything’s going to be excavated. Also, whether or not there are going to be victims or not, there’s going to be people who have nothing to do with the massacre buried in this cemetery, probably in unmarked graves," Hammerstedt said. "We know there are unmarked graves in that area. That’s going to have to be something somebody else will have to make a decision on."

Hammerstedt said looking for mass graves is difficult because bodies wrapped in cloth or placed in simple wood boxes may have decayed too much by now to be found.

"My gut feeling and my experience in the past is if there is something here, we’ll find it, but I’ve not dealt with quite this type of burial in many cases. Most of the time when I’m finding lost graves, they’re in a coffin. They’re easy to find," Hammerstedt said.

After the team finishes using ground-penetrating radar and other equipment at Oaklawn, they will move to the next of three other sites: Newblock Park, an area near Newblock Park, and Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, formerly Booker T. Washington Cemetery.

The team of investigators aims to have a report to the oversight committee in December.