The search for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, one of the worst episodes of racist violence in the country’s history, will enter its second phase on Monday, as archaeologists and forensic scientists begin excavating other sites believed to house remains of Black people killed by a racist mob nearly 100 years ago.
The new excavation comes after the city’s decision to expand the search in September, after an excavation attempt this summer found no human remains. An area believed to have been the site of a mass grave turned out to be a filled-in creek, reports the Associated Press.
The focus this time will be on the “Original 18,” a group of victims listed on a nearly 100-year-old funeral ledger who are believed to have died in the massacre, reports The Washington Post. The 18 people, all of whom were Black, died in June 1921 of gunshots wounds—overlapping with the massacre. But while the document billing the city for burial costs lists names for 13 of the victims, as well as the cause of death, it doesn’t list the actual site in which they were buried.
Researchers will start looking for those victims in a portion of the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery on Monday. The oldest existing cemetery in Tulsa, this portion of the city-owned grounds contains tombstones for massacre victims Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard. According to the Washington Post, they are the only known marked graves of massacre victims in the cemetery. Researchers believe the “Original 18” may be buried nearby in unmarked graves.
Another site, where a then-10-year-old survivor of the massacre reported seeing bodies buried, will also be excavated.
It’s the next phase of a project announced by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum in 2018 in an effort to redress the city’s history of racial violence. Historians believe that during the massacre, sparked by a white mob on May 31, 1921, as many as 300 Black people in the city’s prosperous Greenwood neighborhood—known at the time as “Black Wall Street”—were killed. Much of the neighborhood was razed by the white supremacist mob, which burned down 40 square blocks of the community, destroying Black homes and businesses and driving many survivors out of Tulsa.
As the Post reports, survivors of the massacre “reported seeing bodies tossed into the Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks and trains, making it difficult to account for the dead.”
That accounting didn’t happen in the century that followed. No white person was ever even arrested for the violence they perpetrated, and the event was conveniently forgotten about in nonwhite communities. Bynum himself said he didn’t learn about the massacre until 20 years ago, the AP reports.
“That’s a very common thing in Tulsa. That’s how you learned about it, not through books or the media or in school,” said the 43-year-old mayor. “People didn’t start talking about this event in Tulsa until about 20 years ago.”
It wasn’t until this year that the state of Oklahoma announced it would incorporate lessons about the Tulsa massacre into its statewide curriculum. But thanks in part to hit TV shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, however, more Americans are aware of the brutal destruction of the Greenwood community, which is still, in many ways, trying to recover from the racist attack.
While local activists and descendants of the survivors say the excavation project will be an important step towards reconciliation, some survivors and descendants filed a lawsuit in September against the city and its police for their role in the riot.
Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, is among those taking part in the search for the victims’ graves. She’s also a descendant of one of the survivors of the massacre, the AP reports. White rioters burned down the home and took the property of her great-aunt, Anna Walker Woods.
“People, they were just robbed, white people, coming in saying Black people had better property than they had and that that was just not right,” said Stubblefield. “Burning, thieving, killing wasn’t enough. They had to prevent Black people from recovering.”
The excavation project marks a “completion” to the historic event, she told the AP.
“The story is no longer hidden,” she said, adding, “Personally, professionally, spiritually I have an investment in this.”