TULSA, Okla. – As a 10-year-old, Clyde Eddy observed white laborers digging a large trench in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery.
Nearby, he said, he saw the remains of Black victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre inside wooden crates.
Eddy, who witnessed the 1921 massacre, never saw what happened to the victims’ remains, but a century later state archaeologists believe it’s likely he witnessed the digging of what is probably one of the mass gravesites around north Tulsa.
Eddy died in 2008, but not before he worked with state archaeologists to help them pinpoint the location of what he saw.
Off and on for more than two decades now, teams with the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey have been trying to piece together what happened to Black victims of the massacre.
Officially, 38 deaths have been confirmed after a white mob murdered, looted and burned the Greenwood District over about 16 hours starting on May 31, 1921. But historians now estimate between 100 and 300 may have been killed, with many of the Black victims quickly buried in unmarked mass graves without coroner’s reports or death certificates.
The state Archaeological Survey started probing the massacre more than 20 years ago, reviewing oral histories, interviewing surviving witnesses and conducting a geophysical survey, but that investigation was ultimately shut down before they broke ground, said Kary Stackelbeck, Oklahoma State Archaeologist.
In 2020, crews started digging, or “ground truthing,” to see if any of the locations flagged actually contain evidence of mass graves, Stackelbeck said.
In October, the decades of sleuthing and patience paid off as state archaeologists unearthed their first unmarked mass grave. Stackelbeck said they found the graves of at least 12 individuals inside the mass burial site, but she said there could be as many as 30 bodies.
As crews continued stripping away the dirt that was covering the graves, they kept encountering more coffins to the west.
Because the initial aim was only to reach the top level of the coffins while leaving the remains inside untouched, Stackelbeck said there’s a possibility that coffins could be stacked in some areas. She said crews won’t know just how many remains there are until they return this summer to conduct excavations and exhume bodies.
They also plan to conduct forensic analyses in order to provide an assessment of the burial population and to determine if there is evidence that would lead them to believe these are race massacre victims, she said.
Experts plan to look for evidence of trauma on the remains, which were found in an area known as the “Original 18” site because the area contains the remains of 18 confirmed Black massacre victims, some still unidentified.
Stackelbeck said they can’t yet be certain the remains in the mass grave are linked to the massacre. In 1918 and 1919, an influenza pandemic ripped through the community, resulting in a large number of deaths.
Mass graves also were dug to bury multiple individuals who died in close succession to each other.
“So we do have to be open to the possibility that this could represent a different event,” she said.
Still, she said there are reasons to believe the graves are linked to the massacre.
“We feel a degree of confidence that there are multiple lines of evidence that point to the fact that this could be a mass grave associated with the 1921 race massacre and contains the remains of the victims,” Stackelbeck said.
Archaeologists suspect that potential mass graves could be spread around other parts of North Tulsa as well. Stackelbeck said there are “solid reports” of massacre victims being buried at three different locations.
Her team’s challenge is to take information that has been passed down generation to generation and try to match that with locations on the landscape. It’s challenging because there have been many changes in Tulsa over 100 years and a lot of development, she said.
“It’s definitely a process because it’s not just something where you can just go and start digging wherever,” she said. “You have to take a calculated approach to it. So it’s definitely a process, and it takes us some time, and I know the answers never come as quickly as everybody would like them to.”
Her team also plans to investigate other potential locations around Tulsa with the support of Mayor G.T. Bynum, who announced in 2018 that the city would reopen the investigation of mass graves from the massacre, his spokeswoman, Michelle Brooks, said in an email.
The state initially investigated three potential locations – Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park and Rolling Oaks Memorial Garden, formerly Booker T. Washington Cemetery – and a public oversight committee was established to ensure transparency and community engagement, she said.
The city has spent $95,000 on the effort so far. That does not include additional costs expected for the summer exhumation, Brooks said.
Stackelbeck said she and her colleagues will work in coordination with the oversight committee, members of the Tulsa community and descendants of the massacre’s victims.
“Hopefully we will be successful at finding these victims, which sounds perhaps like an odd thing to say,” she said. “But we really want to do this. We want to do it for members of the community.”