Crews Begin Test Excavation At Oaklawn Cemetery In Search For Possible Mass Graves

Monday, July 13th 2020, 5:28 pm
By: Amy Slanchik

TULSA, Okla. -

It was an historic day at Oaklawn Cemetery Monday, as the search for possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre started back up again, this time with heavy digging equipment.

The pandemic put a halt to the Oklahoma Archeological Survey team's field work back in March. After facing one more delay because of Monday morning's lightning, City of Tulsa crews dug a pit, which is several feet deep, where archeologists will learn more about what's underground.

For the first time since Tulsa's 1921 Race Massacre, archeologists and city crews lifted dirt in the effort to find possible mass graves.

"This is a historic day for Tulsa and for our country,” Mayor GT Bynum said.

A search was done at Oaklawn Cemetery 20 years ago, but historian and author Scott Ellsworth said politics got in the way before any digging happened. 

"Our first effort was gone, over before a single bit of earth was turned,” Ellsworth said.

Monday, a backhoe slowly moved earth away, with hope from researchers and onlookers the work would reveal truths about Tulsa's dark past. University of Florida Forensic Anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, whose parents grew up in Tulsa, said she will be looking for signs of trauma. That includes things like gunshot wounds, and clues a person was burned after being killed.

"I'm expecting crushing, so we may get an intact bone, but broken in three pieces, or it may just be intact. We'll find out when we get down there,” Stubblefield said.

The area the team is excavating is about 19 feet by about 10 feet, with a focus on a smaller area within that. State Archeologist Kary Stackelbeck said using heavy equipment to look for human remains is common.

"Some find it kind of jarring to think of the use of this for locating human remains, but it's actually quite common practice within archeology or in the arena of forensics."

On Monday the team found bottles, metal fragments, an old stove door and what was described as "20th century trash.” The team will eventually use their hands to sift through the dirt.

The test excavation is expected to last 3-6 days. The work done this week will help determine if a larger excavation will need to happen.