Tulsa, Oklahoma, will begin exhuming bodies possibly linked to one of the country’s bloodiest massacres of the twentieth century on Tuesday, one hundred years and a day after the events.
The search for at least a dozen sets of remains believed to belong to victims of the 1921 massacre on the city’s Black Wall Street begins a day after a long Memorial Day weekend of events commemorating the tragic event and honouring its victims.
Experts, led in part by the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, will begin mapping and prepping the site in Oaklawn Cemetery on Tuesday morning, near the graves of massacre victims Eddie Lockard and Reuben Everett.
Despite the fact that ground-penetrating radar detected 12 coffins, a funeral home ledger indicates that there may be up to 18 bodies in the area. The excavation team is preparing for a possible discovery of up to 30.
To begin the process, heavy machinery will scrape off the first few feet of topsoil.
“There may also be some hand-excavation, use of metal detectors, and screening of excavated soil — depending on what is discovered during the first day,” according to details released by the city. “At the same time, other members of the research team will be setting up on-site workstations for artefact processing and laboratory analyses,” says the researcher.
The city and its public oversight committee will determine the next steps for “storing remains, DNA testing and genealogical research, commemorating the gravesites and honouring the remains” after the bodies have been exhumed, according to a city news release.
Researchers, cultural monitors, historians, morticians, a forensic anthropologist, and a videographer will work behind a screening fence for months, according to the city. That doesn’t include the efforts to identify the bodies and determine if they were indeed massacre victims.
Despite what appears to be an on-ramp to justice, some observers believe the road ahead is long and unclear.
“I commend the city for doing something, but it is apparent that justice for the Greenwood community and the survivors and for those who were killed is not a priority,” said the Rev. Robert Turner of Historic Vernon AME Church, the basement of which survived the church’s torching during the attack. He is also a member of the Oversight Committee for the Tulsa Mass Graves.
A descendant of massacre survivors has slammed a plan, which is now only temporary, to bury victims alongside the attack’s perpetrators in the same cemetery. In addition, despite the nonprofit Centennial Commission raising about $30 million in private funds, the lion’s share of which is earmarked for a history centre, a human rights watchdog has criticized Tulsa’s refusal to deliver reparations to victims’ relatives.
In the meantime, a lawsuit filed by victims’ descendants, three centenarian survivors of the massacre, and Turner’s church seeks reparations and accuses the city, Tulsa County, and other defendants of “exploiting the massacre for their own economic and political gain.” Turner told CNN that he wishes reparations were given the same priority as finding the graves.
Tulsa spokeswoman Michelle Brooks said the city couldn’t comment on pending litigation and emphasized that the history centre’s funds were raised privately, not with taxpayer money.
When it came to the speed of the excavations, Brooks pointed out that nothing had been done for 98 years before Mayor G.T. Bynum was moved to action by the victims’ oral histories.
The city wanted to start exhuming the bodies on Tuesday because the date is symbolic and because there will be more archaeologists and experts available when school is out, she said. She predicted that the process would take a long time because one archaeologist told the city that when the team began removing dirt from one of the coffins, it quickly deteriorated.
Recent efforts to resurrect history have brought the massacre back into the spotlight. The news that the bodies of the victims may have been discovered in 2018, as well as plotlines from two popular TV shows — HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and “Watchmen” — have sparked renewed interest in the tragic saga. (CNN and HBO are owned by the same company.)
Even so, much of what happened in Tulsa a century ago has been lost to the passage of time. No one knows how many people have died. It ranges from dozens to hundreds.