Exhumations resume to identify victims of massacre

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A group prays during a small ceremony as the remains of a mass grave are reinterred at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa on July 30, 2021. The mass grave was discovered during a search for victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre . (Photo by Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP, File)

The process of re-exhuming some of the 19 bodies exhumed a year ago for testing to identify victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, then reburied in an Oklahoma cemetery, began on Wednesday to gather more of DNA from the remains.

The final body exhumations that were taken from Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa will be followed by another excavation for additional remains.

Of the 19 bodies previously exhumed, 14 met the criteria for further DNA analysis, but only two of the 14 had enough usable DNA recovered to begin sequencing by Intermountain Forensics of Salt Lake City.

Danny Hellwig, lab development manager for Intermountain, said Wednesday that DNA recovered from the remains had degraded over the more than 100 years they were buried.

“These samples are very… degraded,” Hellwig said. “There are samples that are very light right now on DNA, some that are semi-viable, some that are just on the threshold of ‘being viable.

Hellwig said work to develop a pedigree profile for the two remains with enough viable DNA should begin in about a week and could be completed within weeks, but efforts to identify the remains could take years.

Intermountain Forensics is also looking for people who believe they are descendants of massacre victims to provide genetic material to help scientists find potential matches.

After the exhumations, another search will begin for 18 bodies with gunshot wounds whose burials in single coffins were documented at the time, but with no information where in the cemetery, according to forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield.

“We will be targeting single coffin individuals in our excavations” who are male, based on contemporary reports, Stubblefield said.

The search area is south and west of previous digs conducted in 2020 and 2021, said state archaeologist Kary Stubblefield, who is leading the project.

The remains will be reinterred, at least temporarily, in Oaklawn, where the previous reburial was closed to the public, sparking protests from around two dozen people who said they were descendants of massacre victims and should have been allowed to attend. .

The exhumations will be followed by another search for bodies in an area south and west of the areas previously excavated in 2020 and 2021.

None of the remains found so far are identified or confirmed as victims of the massacre in which more than 1,000 homes were burned, hundreds were looted and a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street was destroyed. Historians have estimated the death toll at between 75 and 300.

The victims were never compensated; however, an ongoing lawsuit seeks reparations for the last three known survivors of the violence.

The last search should end on November 18.

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