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Crews searching a cemetery for remains of those murdered in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre just found five more coffins in a mass grave.
The new discoveries bring the total number of coffins found at the site to 20, Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said in a video statement Thursday. The excavation is happening at Oaklawn Cemetery, and the first 12 remains were found at the site last October, according to Stackelbeck. She said as many as 30 remains may have been buried at the site, but she noted the coffins may be stacked on one another, meaning the final number could be much higher.
Originally, the only known documents of the site were a hastily written ledger from 1921 that billed the state $25 for 18 Black bodies needing graves, according to the Washington Post. Very little information was given in the document, which wasn’t even found until 1998, and one of the most pertinent omitted facts was the mass grave’s location.
“Essentially, we’re working from the unknown to the known,” Stackelbeck said in a press conference Tuesday. “We had some data to work with coming into this that was the basis of the hypothesis we were establishing, but right now we’re in the testing phase. We’re really having to nail this down based on the data and soils as we expose them.”
The search comes one century after the massacre, when mobs of white local officials and cops descended on the Greenwood area of Tulsa known as “Black Wall Street”with guns and murdered hundreds of Black civilians, as well as burned down the town. Original reports from the state said that 36 people, 12 of them white, had died in the killings, which even included bombings by World War I-era planes, but historians say more than 300 Black people died in the massacre. On the anniversary this year, hundreds of Black gun owners marched at the site.
With the uncovering of five more victims in the mass grave, officials said a formal exhumation process will begin Monday. So far the team has uncovered what it thinks are the boundaries of the site, making the process slightly more manageable.
“Ultimately, it will of course be subject to criticism either from people who think we are looking in the wrong place or people who think we shouldn’t be spending any money on it or any number of things,” said Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum to local outlet Tulsa World. “We are doing this for the victims and their families. We are not doing this to make everybody happy.”