Twenty-four unmarked graves have been found in a historic Tulsa, Oklahoma, cemetery amid recently relaunched efforts to find and identify victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, city officials said Wednesday.
The adult- and child-sized burials were unearthed in Oaklawn Cemetery over the past week during what is now the second full excavation of the land since work first began last year.
“Much like last year, we’re trying to do every step of this process as respectfully as possible,” Kary Stackelbeck, state archaeologist of Oklahoma, said in a video statement Tuesday of the work procuring DNA samples, taking 3D photos of the graves and skeletal remains, and in some cases performing full exhumations for lab analysis. The remains are reburied after analysis with the help of a pastor or member of the clergy, she said.
The painstaking work is a search for those killed during the total destruction of the city’s once-prosperous Black district, known as Greenwood, by a mob of white men just over 100 years ago.
Only 26 death certificates were issued for Black victims of the attack, 21 of which were buried in Oaklawn Cemetery, Tulsa’s oldest existing cemetery, according to the city. But historians estimate that as many as 300 people were killed and that in many instances their remains were buried in unmarked graves and without their families’ knowledge.
“They did not know that their loved ones were dead. Or they did not know what was happening to them,” Scott Ellsworth, a historian at the University of Michigan, previously told NPR of the atrocity’s aftermath.
Martial law was declared by white authorities in the immediate wake of the attack, placing residents under armed guard and unable to find and claim the dead, said Ellsworth.
In addition to determining a more accurate number of those killed, the city has been working to identify the remains with the help of Greenwood descendants. Those who believe they may be biologically connected to the victims are encouraged to take a DNA test and submit the results online.
Researchers earlier this year said they were able to exhume 19 human remains during their initial 2021 excavation work in the cemetery. Of the remains found, 14 were able to undergo DNA analysis before being reburied. Of those 14, 13 had non-observable trauma and one had trauma associated with three gunshot wounds.
None of the bodies recovered so far has been definitively connected to the massacre; a city spokesperson told HuffPost Thursday that the work is still in the excavation phase.
Stackelbeck said last week that researchers did not get ideal DNA samples from some of the remains found last year and those graves were recently excavated again so better samples could be taken.