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Human remains found at suspected 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre mass grave site

The remains were found in an unmarked “grave shaft” more than 3 feet below the ground’s surface, in a wooden coffin with no headstone.
Archaeologists and observers watch during a test excavation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa on July 13, 2020.Nick Oxford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Archaeologists have found human remains during an excavation of what researchers suspect to be a mass grave site from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre at a city cemetery.

The remains were found in an unmarked “grave shaft” more than 3 feet below the ground’s surface, according to Kary Stackelbeck, the state archaeologist for Oklahoma. The body was in a wooden coffin held together by nails, without a headstone, but a temporary marker was discovered nearby.

Scientists announced late last year that geophysical scanning identified two spots at the Oaklawn Cemetery that might contain the remains of those killed in the city's race riots almost 100 years ago. Monday marked the second excavation of the area, with an earlier dig in July resulting in no remains.

“It does correspond to one of the locations that was picked up on by the geophysical survey work so that gives us reason for optimism,” Stackelbeck said of the remains Tuesday. “We don’t have a whole lot of details to present at this point time, but we are continuing our investigation.”

Stackelbeck said the team will be extending their excavation to pursue a second suspected grave shaft nearby. It’s unclear whether the human remains are connected to the 1921 massacre, but archaeologists are only beginning to examine the remains.

“We are still analyzing what has come out of the ground at this point in time and so, no, unfortunately we have not been able to assess the trauma at this point in time, or potential trauma,” she said.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said that the forensic team will reference funeral home and death certificate records to help identify the remains.

“I am very grateful to have the foremost experts in the country working to locate the remains of victims from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” Bynum said on Facebook Tuesday.

The Tulsa Race Massacre, sometimes referred to as the Tulsa race riots, began on May 31, 1921, after a black teenager named Dick Rowland was falsely accused of having assaulted a white woman. White rioters led by the Ku Klux Klan began burning down the Greenwood District, also referred to as Black Wall Street for its thriving African American-owned businesses.

Klansmen looted many of the district's black businesses as the governor declared martial law and brought in the National Guard. Official death tolls at the time accounted for 36 people killed in the riots, although experts have long believed that the number could be in the hundreds.

The Tulsa Race Massacre received renewed attention last year after HBO’s “Watchmen” series recreated the two-day event in its pilot episode, using the disturbing historical incident to set the tone for its season.

A lawsuit seeking reparations was filed by survivors of the riot in September, calling the event "one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in United States history since slavery."

The civil suit is not seeking a definitive dollar amount in damages but instead offers a list of demands, which include an accounting of the property and wealth lost or stolen in the massacre, construction of a hospital and trauma center in north Tulsa and the creation of a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund.