A team of scientists, archaeologists and forensic anthropologists have started digging suspected mass graves for the remains of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. According to The Washington Post, the excavation, which commenced on Monday at one of the suspected spots at the Oaklawn Cemetery, finally kicked off after it was delayed for three months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The excavation also comes after Oakland authorities announced two possible mass grave sites from the deadly incident last year. The unmarked graves at The Canes, which is an area near the Arkansas River and Oaklawn Cemetery, were discovered after scientists and forensic anthropologists conducted a geographical survey at three sites around Tulsa, CNN reports.
The 1921 massacre left as many as 300 Black people dead and about 1,256 properties including thriving Black-owned businesses, homes, schools and churches destroyed.
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“In the past 99 years, no other agency or government entity has moved this far into an investigation that will seek truth into what happened in Tulsa in 1921. As we resume with the test excavation, we’re taking all precautions to do so under the safest environment possible. I’m thankful for the health and well-being of our partners who have diligently coordinated with our team to move forward with this work during the constraints of the pandemic and record heat we are expecting,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said.
Speaking to The Washington Post, Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida, said she’s optimistic bones found from the excavation – which will take up to two weeks – will be adequately preserved to allow them “extract DNA from remains” that could aid in identifying the victims and connecting them to their descendants.
The causes of death of the remains of the victims that may be found at the suspected site will be investigated by the state medical examiner’s office.
The massacre, christened as the Tulsa Race Riot, took place from May 31 to June 1, 1921. A white mob invaded and attacked residents of black residents living in Greenwood. The riot was spurred after a 19-year old Black shoeshiner by the name Dick Rowland was accused of raping a 17-year old white female elevator operator called Sarah Page.
Greenwood, at that time, was the most thriving African-American neighborhood in the United States. Nicknamed the ‘Black Wall Street‘, Greenwood was home to highly successful and profitable black-owned businesses.
The mob charred businesses, homes, and churches and after the smoke cleared, more than 35 blocks were destroyed. It is believed that at least 100-300 people, mostly blacks, were killed while a thousand more were left homeless.
“There was a concerted coverup by city leaders and business leaders” to hide the atrocities, Bynum told The Washington Post. “Anytime a terrible event occurs, there are two inclinations. One is to find out what happened and why. The other inclination is to cover it up. Unfortunately, the leaders in Tulsa in 1921 chose that second option. You had generations who never heard about the massacre because the conspiracy of silence was strong.”