In October 2020, scientists found multiple coffins in the same unmarked mass grave. In June 2021, after excavations resumed, scientists discovered 35 coffins; they exhumed the human remains of 19 of them. The remains were taken to an on-site laboratory for analysis.
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One set of remains examined was that of a man who had multiple gunshot wounds, including a bullet still lodged in his left shoulder area.
City officials have previously said it remains to be determined whether the burials are associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“It just took my breath away,” J. Kavin Ross, chairman of the public oversight committee for the 1921 Tulsa mass burial inquiry, said of the discovery of the 12 coffins. Ross says these coffins are likely related to the massacre.
“Scientists and researchers might say differently,” he said. “You would have to prove to me that they are not. In my heart, I believe they are. How are you going to stack the people next door so close like that? I can’t help but believe once again that it might ultimately be among those who lost their lives in the summer of 1921.”
Oaklawn Cemetery is located a few blocks from Greenwood, the all-black community destroyed nearly 100 years ago by a white mob in a gruesome rampage that historians say could have left up to 300 people dead among black people and thousands of homes and businesses on Black Wall Street destroyed.
Survivors reported seeing bodies thrown into the Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to account for the dead. Other survivors told stories of black people placed in mass graves. No whites have ever been arrested in connection with the massacre. For decades after the rampage, few people spoke about what happened.
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After the search for mass graves ended in July 2020 without finding any human remains, the city decided to expand its search. The second dig focused on an area called Original Site 18, where officials believe the bodies of 18 black people were buried after the massacre.
Records show a white-owned funeral home charged Tulsa County in June 1921 for the burials of “18 Negroes.” Funeral home records and death certificates from 1921 show that at least 18 identified and unidentified black victims of the massacre were buried in an unmarked grave in Oaklawn.
The mass grave discovered in October 2020 was discovered in Area Original 18, near the headstones of Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard, the only known marked graves of the victims of the massacre in the cemetery.
The first investigation of mass graves that may be linked to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre took place in 1998. It identified four potential sites, but that investigation was closed without a physical search. In 2018, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum (R) announced the city would reopen its search at all four sites, including Oaklawn Cemetery.
“As we open this investigation 101 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to be uncovered,” Bynum said in a statement last year. “But we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process – filling the gaps in our city’s history and bringing healing and justice to our community.”
This story has been updated.
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