I am thrill to feature my sister-in-Christ, Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, in MRS T’S CORNER blog. Phoebe is an accomplished academic scholar and is a very humble woman.
The University of Florida Explore Magazine features Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield’s incredible work in Tulsa, OK. Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist and interim director of UF’s renowned C. A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, says her story is not unusual, which has made the search for the graves of Black people killed in what has become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre that much more challenging.
“It was like secret knowledge,” Stubblefield told PBS NewsHour in 2020. “I get the impression that, often, Black people — especially when moving around — dealt with horrors by not talking about them.”
Stubblefield says that despite the enormity of the event, in the weeks, years and decades that followed, the Black community sought to quickly rebuild and the white community sought to repress the story.
“Immediately after the massacre, Tulsa leaders tried to pass a fire code restriction to prevent rebuilding, but it was so restrictive that other city leaders said even the white people wouldn’t be able to build,” she says. “Leaders in Greenwood urged people to rebuild as fast as they could, to put anything on their property before city leaders could come up with another restrictive code.”
So life returned to a new normal, and as the years went by people forgot, and just to make sure they didn’t remember, by the 1960s Stubblefield says “the city and state of Oklahoma were actively suppressing awareness of the riot.”
Historians have spent years searching for a copy of the May 31, 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune, which is purported to have had an incendiary story about Rowland’s arrest on the front page. But original copies of the newspaper have never been found, and the story was redacted from a microfilm copy made in the 1950s.
It wasn’t until 1997, when the city established the race riot commission, that details of the event began to emerge. But while the commission answered many questions about the massacre and the events surrounding it, the question of how many members of the Greenwood community died and where they were buried continued to haunt the city.
As the 2021 centennial of the massacre approached, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum initiated the 1921 Graves Investigation, saying: “The only way to move forward in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is by seeking the truth honestly. As we open this investigation 99 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to uncover. But we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process — filling gaps in our city’s history, and providing healing and justice to our community.”
As one of the nation’s leading forensic anthropologists, Stubblefield was a natural addition to the Graves Investigation. She leads skeletal recovery and analysis for the Physical Investigation Committee, which is chaired by historian Scott Ellsworth, who is also in charge of identifying viable sites. Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck is in charge of archaeology. The team, which includes several other UF alumni and graduate students, is excavating in cemeteries and other locations where eyewitness accounts, mortuary records and other reports indicate Black victims of the massacre may be buried.
In 2019, Stackelbeck and a team of experts from the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, based at the University of Oklahoma, began using a variety of tools, including remote sensing, at three initial target sites from the race riot commission report — Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park and Rolling Oaks Cemetery (formerly Booker T. Washington Cemetery).
Based on anomalies in ground-penetrating radar scans, in July 2020 the team began test excavations in a section of the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery, but after eight days of digging, no remains were found.
In October, they moved to another area of the cemetery, a potter’s field where funeral home records and other documents from 1921 indicated at least 18 African American massacre victims were buried. During that excavation, the team found evidence of at least 12 coffins holding human remains. Stubblefield says weather conditions were deteriorating in October, so the team secured the excavation site and returned the soil that had been removed. She says the team hopes to return in June to resume excavating.
While the team appears to be closing in on recorded burials, it is reports of mass burials of perhaps hundreds of people that continue to challenge the researchers.
Two areas near a railroad track — The Canes and Newblock Park — are of particular interest.
“There are eyewitness statements that members of the National Guard brought in a rail car covered with bodies and that they were moved downhill into a trench,” Stubblefield says. “Aerial photos show that there was a bluff that was there then, and it’s still there now, so that supports these accounts.”
She says The Canes is now a homeless camp with a lot of younger trees that would have grown up after the massacre. Newblock Park is near a sewer lift station, so there has been considerable disturbance to the ground over the years, but she remains hopeful.