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BLM, Tulsa Oklahoma

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

A century after the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, archaeologists are now uncovering its mass burials.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 saw a white mob loot and burn the city’s prosperous black neighbourhood, the Greenwood District, over a 16-hour period. This shocking, tragic event killed between 100 and 300 black people. Many of the dead were quickly buried in unmarked mass graves. For the past twenty years, the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey has been researching the massacre, relying on oral traditions and interviewing the few surviving witnesses. They also conducted a geophysical survey, which was shut down before they broke ground. It was not until 2020 that the first digging began, which aimed to establish whether any of the flagged locations were actually mass graves.

In October 2020, the archaeologists unearthed their first mass grave. According to Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck, they found the graves of at least 12 people, but she believes there may have been as many as 30 bodies. Some coffins could have been stacked, but so far they have confined excavations to exposing the top level of coffins. They have left the remains inside them undisturbed.

This summer, the excavation crew will continue stripping away the surface dirt and exposing more coffins, as well as exhuming some of the dead. Part of the research that will follow will involve fine-grained archaeological forensics – attempts to confirm that the burials are those of the massacre victims. They will look for evidence of bodily trauma, for mass graves were also dug in the city to hold flu victims from the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. A public oversight Committee, members of the Tulsa community, and descendants of massacre victims will be involved, to ensure transparency.

Image: flames across the Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa.

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