Posted in History

“Digging for The Truth: Finding graves helps Tulsa bury its ghosts”

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.”

Suppressing History

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.”

Phoebe Stubblefield, Interim Director C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory

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.”

Geologist Deborah Green points out trench features to Phoebe Stubblefield.

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.

REFERENCES

Explore Research at the University of Florida – Features (ufl.edu)

“Digging for The Truth” – Anthropology (ufl.edu)

Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield ’86, Excavating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre – TSC013 | The Supporting Cast (blubrry.net)

60 Seconds With… UND Forensic Science – YouTube

UT College of Liberal Arts: (utexas.edu)

Mass grave discovered in search for 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims – ABC News (go.com)

Author:

Christian Blogger, wife, mother of three adults and grandmother of one granddaughter

20 thoughts on ““Digging for The Truth: Finding graves helps Tulsa bury its ghosts”

    1. Thank you for sharing this history Jonathan. If you are referring to Native American tribes the answer is none to my knowledge. All deceased were Black Americans but I will confirm with Phoebe to see if any were Black Indians. Have a great day/night and remain safe.

      Like

  1. Thank you for sharing this information- it’s new to me. As a history major I see very often how certain things are hidden in history and it’s quite sad because we need to openly talk about everything even if it makes us uncomfortable because that’s the only way we can be better in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree Pooja and appreciate your honesty.

      All nations need to have genuine discussions about massacres of Native Americans, slavery, racism, hatred, discrimination, etc. Everyone will not change, or be save, but one conversion can lead to two and the healing process continues until Jesus returns. We need to understand that everyone was birth through Adam and Eve. We cannot love GOD and harbor anything in our hearts that is contrary to the laws of GOD, and expect to make Heaven our eternal home. It is a difficult conversation starter but it MUST be started. There is one human race and ONE supreme GOD; no man has been given supremacy over another. #TruthMustBeTold.

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  2. Hi Tangie
    I remember her name from the blog “Impactful sisters in your life”
    It is dynamic read that a woman of God, is making such an impact in an unusual career for women of color! Thank you for important information that has not been acknowledged nearly as much as it should! Outstanding blog!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Pam, for reading and commenting. I am doing my part in helping to spread hidden truths using my blog as a platform; in addition to spreading the word of GOD.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I had never heard of this awful incident until a year or two ago. Thanks to Dr. Stubblefield and the others, including Mayor Bynum, working to bring out the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Herb, I was late in the game too hearing about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Phoebe has been giving presentations and has been featured in magazines and on TV bringing up to speed as many people as possible. I am trying to make others aware too. Thank you for reading and commenting. Have a great day/night and remain safe.

      Liked by 2 people

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