TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Experts are trying to temper expectations concerning the search of three graves sites in Tulsa that could hold the remains of people killed during the 1921 race riots.
As many as 300 people are estimated to have been killed on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street during one of the worst race-related massacres in U.S. history.
At a public oversight meeting in the city on Thursday, scientists and historians detailed their progress in the gravesite project.
Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist specializing in human identification, said the number of years that have passed will make identifying remains a challenge.
“Be realistic, a century has passed,” said Stubblefield.
She said she has two goals: “I want to send these people home, and I hope to be able to identify them enough to know (whether they are) a race massacre victim.”
She also noted that some of the bodies at two of the sites likely aren’t related to the riots.
“I present this not to be a killjoy for those eager to get these stories told,” Stubblefield said. “It’s really to frame a timeline.”
Historian Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa native who started researching the massacre nearly 40 years ago, said the three sites under investigation — Oaklawn Cemetery, Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens and property near Newblock Park — were identified by witnesses, oral histories and ground anomalies.
In October, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum declared that the city would re-examine the sites, which were last inspected by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Officials at Thursday’s meeting said no decisions on excavating will be made until data from field work by the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey is thoroughly examined.
Death certificates have been discovered for 37 people, including 25 African Americans, slain in the massacre. Most authorities believe the actual death toll is substantially higher.
“This is really unprecedented work that we’re doing,” Ellsworth said. “I really can’t think of anywhere in the country where there’s already been so much effort put in, there’s ongoing effort, and please know that even though you may not hear from us for a few months, we’re not lying around. We’re committed to this.”