Experts break down the science behind identifying remains thought to belong to Tulsa Race Massacre victims

Tulsa Race Massacre

TULSA, Okla. (KFOR) – The Tulsa Race Massacre took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921.

It all started due to a rumored encounter in the Drexel Building elevator in downtown Tulsa between teenagers Dick Rowland, an African American shoeshiner, and Sara Page, a white elevator operator.

Page claimed that she was assaulted, though she later recanted. A newspaper embellished the story of the alleged crime.

There was talk that Rowland would be lynched, so armed African American men came to the jail to protect him. A larger group of armed white men met them there. Then, gunfire rang out.

A white mob then set Greenwood on fire. All 35 city blocks of the community burned, including more than 1,200 homes, 600 businesses and a number of churches on Black Wall Street.

It has been estimated that between 100 to 300 people were killed, with many others wounded.

Fast forward to 2021, 100 years after the massacre occured.

After decades of searching, a mass burial site of what is believed to be Tulsa Race Massacre victims was found and will finally be excavated.

“We encountered our first burial on the second day of our test excavations,” said Dr. Kary Stackelbeck, Oklahoma State Archaeologist and lead archaeologist on the physical investigation committee for the reopened Tulsa Race Massacre investigation. “We could tell that the surrounding soil matrix and just the context was not one grave shaft, so we surmised a possibility that this was an area that perhaps encompassed multiple graves.”

The remains possibly belong to the Original 18.

The Original 18 are deceased males that were listed in Tulsa newspapers after the massacre ended. With other Greenwood residents in internment camps, there was no one to bury them. So the City of Tulsa hired two funeral homes to do so. However, the exact location and nature of the mass burial site was not noted in history.

“There had been some limited records and documentation, death records, death certificates for some of the race massacre victims who were reportedly buried in Oaklawn Cemetery by two of the then funeral homes who had been commissioned by the City of Tulsa,” said Dr. Stackelbeck.

Now, decades later, the journey is well underway to find out just who these people are.

First, it will need to be determined whether the remains belong to those who died in the massacre or from influenza back in 1918.

“I’ll be looking for signs of gunshot wounds or even the presence of actual bullets,” said Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, the lead forensic anthropologist for the June 1 excavation.

Identification will come next.

“For individual identification we will require successful DNA analysis,” said Dr. Stubblefield. “And for DNA from individuals that were born over 100 years ago, that means relatives.”

Dr. Stubblefield told News 4 that if there are existing DNA profiles for descendants, the DNA comparison will take months. Longer, if the matches are not readily available.

The process to exhume the remains begins June 1.

Archaeologists will carefully re-dig the trench of the mass burial site and extract the at least 12 coffins inside to be analyzed by Dr. Stubblefield and her team.

A Tulsa Race Massacre historian told News 4 that there are other locations around Tulsa where massacre victim remains may also be, based on oral accounts from survivors. Because many of these locations were never documented, it will take actually excavating them to find out for sure.

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