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New York Times
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:Tulsa Reaches ‘Breakthrough’ in Search for Massacre Victims

Officials in Tulsa, Okla., announced a “major scientific breakthrough” this week in a search for the graves of people who were killed in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, saying that six sets of exhumed remains had yielded DNA profiles that could be traced to living relatives.

“At every stage of the search, the city’s primary objective has been to identify missing victims and reunite their remains with their families,” Tulsa’s mayor, G.T. Bynum, said at a news conference on Wednesday. The analysis of the genetic genealogy profiles, and possible links to 19 surnames, represented a critical step in that process, he said.

In 2020, nearly a century after a mob of white Tulsans killed as many as 300 people in an attack on Greenwood, a prosperous and predominantly Black neighborhood, the city began excavating a section of the Oaklawn Cemetery, east of downtown, where it had found evidence of a possible mass gravesite.

The state archaeologist, Kary Stackelbeck, led exhumations in 2021 and 2022 in consultation with Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist, that Dr. Stackelbeck said had allowed for the remains of 22 people to be analyzed for DNA.

Officials cautioned that they did not know if the six sets of remains, four male and two female, that produced genetic genealogy profiles belonged to victims of the massacre. The goal of the project, Dr. Stackelbeck said in an interview, was to “recover as much information as possible that would allow us to discern whether these individuals represent victims or not.”

The process involved extensive testing of the soil around the cemetery, Dr. Stackelbeck said, and consultation with experts in wood and ammunition. In one case, they are conducting analysis on a set of keys that were buried for more than a century.

The Tulsa Race Massacre began, like many episodes of racial violence, with a false accusation. On May 31, 1921, a white mob gathered outside a courthouse where a young Black man was being held over allegations that he had attacked a young white woman who operated an elevator at a drugstore. The man was cleared, but when the group of white men converged with a group of Black men at a police station, shots were fired and a fight broke out.

The mob descended on Greenwood, a self-sufficient community known as Black Wall Street, and burned it to the ground, aided by the National Guard. The death toll may have been as high as 300, making it one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history. Hundreds more people were injured, and an estimated 8,000 or more were left homeless.

After the massacre, officials worked to erase it from the city’s historical record. Victims were buried in unmarked graves and police records vanished. The city did not begin to grapple with the legacy of the massacre until the late 1990s, when a commission was created to investigate it, leading to a report in 2001.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Bynum, the mayor, said that the exhumation effort was “this generation of Tulsans trying to do what should’ve been done 100 years ago.”

No one was ever held accountable for the deaths or the destruction, though a judge ruled last year that three survivors of the massacre could proceed with part of a lawsuit seeking reparations.

Brenda Nails-Alford, a descendant of victims of the massacre and a member of the 1921 Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, said at the news conference on Wednesday that identifying the remains would “bring some sense of justice and healing to our community.”

Officials hope the six sets of remains that yielded genetic genealogy profiles could lead researchers to living descendants. Investigators said that they had associated 19 possible surnames with the remains and saw possible connections to at least seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

Mr. Bynum said more breakthroughs were expected.

“We have documentary evidence that Tulsa County paid for 18 — the term used on the invoice — ‘riot dead’ to be buried in this cemetery,” he said in the interview. “We’re trying to find them.”

Over the last six months, organizers of the project have urged anyone who may be a descendant of a victim to submit information, and about 100 people have done so, officials said. The genealogy case manager for the project, Alison Wilde, said she hoped the specificity of the states and surnames would prompt more people to participate.

The six remains fit the profile of what the forensic scientists were looking for, even though they have not been confirmed as victims. Either way, Ms. Wilde said, identifying them would advance the investigations and give researchers a better understanding of the burial patterns at the cemetery.

The team of archaeologists, anthropologists, genealogists and forensic scientists emphasized that the success of the project depended on help from the public.

“This last step is in their hands or in their blood, as it were,” Dr. Stackelbeck said. “Or in their spit.”