After more than two years of searching for graves associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, archaeologists recently found outlines of 10 coffins that might help the city more wholly understand the events of the massacre. Archaeological inquiry in Oaklawn Cemetery that revealed these coffins followed the oral history accounts of the massacre. Oral history and funeral home documents pointed to this space as the site of burial for 18 Black people killed during the massacre, known as the Original 18.
The Original 18 refers to a funeral home ledger, one of the only surviving documents from the massacre. Here, the funeral home billed Tulsa County $25 each for the burial of 18 Black people, only 13 of whom were named. In addition to leaving five bodies unidentified, the ledger did not note the location of the burial, creating a mystery that led to Tulsa’s continued search for the massacre victims today.
Officials like Kary Stackelbeck, an Oklahoma State University archaeologist and leading scientist working in Tulsa’s excavations, are optimistic that the recent findings can be attributed to the Original 18. She assured “we feel a high degree of confidence that this is in one of the locations that we have been looking for.” However, the team is still working on analyzing whether the individuals found were definitely killed in the 1921 Massacre. Stackelbeck went on to state, “We are still in the process of analyzing the remains to the best of our ability and to get a better sense of exactly what’s going on with this particular individual.” Despite this caution, Stackelbeck also outlined that the site “does correspond to one of the locations that were picked up on by the geophysical survey work. So that gives us a reason for optimism.”
Moving forward, scientists are waiting on a court order to exhume the unmarked individuals to study their causes of death more closely. Officials expect to move forward with their search and studies in 2021 when weather conditions permit. With this, archaeologists hope to know more conclusively whether these coffins can be associated with the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Investigation into finding additional remains was launched in July 2018 as Tulsa officials and archaeologists hoped to shed light on the amount of people who were killed in the 1921 Massacre that decimated Tulsa’s historic Black Wall Street as well as to help locate the bodies of missing Black victims. Some estimates placed the number of people killed upwards of 300; finding these unmarked coffins represents a significant step towards refining these estimates and towards allowing the families of victims to better understand the tragic events of May 31 and June 1, 1921.
Brenda Alfred, Chairwoman of the Tulsa Mass Graves Oversight Committee and well known North Tulsa community activist, has always been told that her great-grandmother was buried in an unmarked grave in Oaklawn Cemetery. Emphasizing the weight of these excavations in moving towards rectifying Tulsa’s historic injustices, Alfred stated “I am just very appreciative of all the hard work that is going into finding our truth, to again bring some sense of justice and healing to our community.”