Twenty-four unmarked graves have been discovered in a historic cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, amid newly revived efforts to find and identify victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, city officials said Wednesday.
The adult and child graves were discovered at Oaklawn Cemetery over the past week in what is now the second full excavation of the grounds since work began last year.
“Just like last year, we’re trying to do every step of this process as respectfully as possible,” Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said in a video statement Tuesday about the work of securing DNA samples, taking 3D photos of the graves. and skeletal remains and, in some cases, complete exhumations for laboratory analysis. The remains are reinterred after analysis with the help of a pastor or a member of the clergy, she said.
The painstaking work involves tracking down those killed during the total destruction of the city’s once prosperous black neighborhood known as Greenwood by a mob of white men just over 100 years ago.
Only 26 death certificates were issued for black victims of the attack, 21 of whom were buried in Oaklawn Cemetery, the oldest existing cemetery in Tulsa, according to the city. But historians estimate that as many as 300 people were killed, and in many cases their remains were buried in unmarked graves and without the knowledge of their families.
“They didn’t know their loved ones were dead. Or they didn’t know what was happening to them,” University of Michigan historian Scott Ellsworth previously told NPR of the aftermath of the atrocity.
Martial law was declared by white authorities the day after the attack, placing residents under armed guard and unable to find and claim the dead, Ellsworth said.
In addition to determining a more precise number of those killed, the city worked to identify the remains with the help of Greenwood’s descendants. Those who believe they have a biological connection to the victims are encouraged to take a DNA test and submit the results online.
Earlier this year, researchers said they were able to exhume 19 human remains during their first excavation work in 2021 at the cemetery. Among the remains found, 14 were able to undergo DNA analysis before being reburied. Of these 14, 13 had unobservable trauma and one had trauma associated with three gunshot wounds.
None of the bodies recovered so far have been definitively linked to the massacre; a city spokesperson told HuffPost on Thursday that work was still in the excavation phase.
Stackelbeck said last week that researchers had not obtained ideal DNA samples from some of the remains found last year and that those graves had recently been excavated again so better samples could be taken.