Forensic archaeologists in Tulsa, Okla., appear one step closer to identifying the site where hundreds of black residents were buried after the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, considered one of the worst episodes of white supremacist violence in U.S. history.
A team of scientists announced at a public forum Monday night that they found “anomalies ... consistent with mass graves” at Oaklawn Cemetery, reports the Washington Post. The site is the city’s oldest existing cemetery, and one of three locations archaeologists have spent the last several weeks probing for signs of mass graves.
From the Post:
Scott Hammerstedt, a scientist who worked on the geophysical survey, said at Oaklawn “there are quite a lot of anomalies here consistent with mass graves” near a part of the cemetery where city records show 18 black people were buried in June 1921.
In another section of the cemetery, they discovered “what very much looks like a human-dug pit,” Hammerstedt said. “This is very likely a candidate to be a mass burial. We may need to investigate further.”
The researchers said the pit appears to be roughly 30 x 25 feet, or enough to bury up to 100 bodies, reports CBS News.
“I’m as confident as I can be in the results that this is a very big candidate for something associated with the massacre,” said Hammerstedt.
The Tulsa Massacre, once referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot,” marked a bloody turning point in Tulsa’s history. Historians believe as many 300 black people were killed in a concerted assault on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, known at the time as “the Negro Wall Street.” The violence was sparked by a white mob, which descended upon a black shoeshine boy who was unjustly arrested and accused of assaulting a white woman. The white vigilantes were “intent on lynching the shine boy,” according to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report. A group of armed black men who gathered around him was just as intent on defending him.
The confrontation set off a horrific, prolonged act of domestic terrorism in which government officials took part. By the time the violence abated, 35 square blocks of Greenwood were destroyed—including more than a thousand homes, businesses, churches, and schools.
The episode was long buried, but never forgotten by Tulsa’s black residents. As the 100-year anniversary of the massacre approaches, the city is facing increased pressure to address its turbulent racial history in a way it never has before. A major part of that reckoning will be resolving what happened to the hundreds of people slaughtered at the hands of that white mob.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum announced last year that he would open an investigation into the city’s mass graves, comparing that inquiry to a murder investigation.
“If you get murdered in Tulsa, we have a contract with you that we will do everything we can to find out what happened and render justice,” Bynum told the Washington Post. “That’s why we are treating this as a homicide investigation for Tulsans who we believe were murdered in 1921.”
“I always knew these mass graves existed,” Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper told the Post on Monday. “We are pleased with the fact there is some evidence mass graves have been located. We are excited about the next steps of uncovering a cover-up and laying these bodies to rest respectfully as they should have been nearly 100 years ago.”
If a mass grave is found, the decision of how to store, identify and commemorate the remains will fall to an oversight committee comprising descendants of massacre victims, as well as community leaders, historians, and academics. According to CBS News, some black Tulsans said they want to see the remains moved to Vernon A.M.E. Church as part of a memorial. The church’s basement was one of the few sites that survived the massacre.