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Reflecting on Progress: The Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation

Reflecting on Progress: The Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation

Workers in hard hats and high visibility vests work excavating at Oaklawn cemetery

In 1921, a racially motivated massacre left an untold number of African American Tulsans dead. In the 100 years since, questions and rumors abound over the location of potential mass graves in the city of Tulsa.

The University of Oklahoma – Oklahoma Archeological Survey, working with City of Tulsa leaders, including Mayor G.T. Bynum and a Public Oversight Committee, provided their world-class expertise to help shed light on these atrocities committed so long ago, and attempt to give closure to those in Tulsa still without answers a century later.

The first phase of the investigation, which consisted of the archeological exhumation and fieldwork, was completed in June. In total, 19 sets of remains were exhumed from an unmarked area of Oaklawn Cemetery. Now, scientists are working to determine cause of death and the era in which they died – to attempt to ascertain if they are victims of the race massacre.

In the video below, Kary Stackelbeck, Ph.D., state archaeologist with the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, and Mayor Bynum recap the investigation’s progress and reflect on the efforts to try to answer long-lingering questions.

“These might be victims of violence who had been here with no one knowing where they were until this team of experts just uncovered them,” Bynum said.

“We also have to remain open, and, as scientists, we have to let the data guide us, because it’s also possible that we could be looking at intersecting mass graves,” Stackelbeck said. “We just simply won’t know until we complete our work here, and that’s exactly what we’re here to do is to try and answer that question.”

But, regardless of the ultimate findings, leaders with the City of Tulsa put a high priority on the project.

Bynum admits that Tulsa failed race massacre victims in 1921.

“We can’t go back in time,” he said. “All we can control is what we do now.”

The goal is to try to find the victims and give their families a better idea of where they are, and the opportunity to have a say in their final resting places.

J. Kavin Ross, chair of the project’s Public Oversight Committee, a group comprised of descendants of massacre victims and leaders in Tulsa’s African American community, emphasizes the importance of the transparency.

“The voice of the committee is very important … when involved in each step of this process,” Ross said.

Stackelbeck puts the project in perspective.

“To think that we are part of an effort to shed light on this tragedy and to obtain information that has been elusive for 100 years – and more than that, been intentionally hidden – it’s extremely humbling to be a part of that effort and to be part of this incredible team. I feel very lucky and honored to be part of that effort,” Stackelbeck said.

For the most up-to-date information on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation, visit

By Bonnie Rucker

Article Published:  Wednesday, September 8, 2021