A search for a mass grave in Tulsa is ongoing this week, nearly 100 years after a white mob killed an unknown number of Black victims and destroyed the city's 35-block "Black Wall Street" – a thriving business district.
The excavation is a test attempting to determine whether human remains are present at the site: Oaklawn Cemetery, a location research suggests could hold an unmarked mass grave. The excavation could be an important step toward closure for victims' families and may help experts better understand the scope of the tragedy.
As of Wednesday, no remains had yet been found, although the excavation was ongoing. The project has expanded its initial scope in an attempt to locate any grave shafts in the area, according to statements at a Wednesday briefing.
Geophysical survey work previously indicated that the location had an underground anomaly, which signaled the possibility of a grave shaft. As of Wednesday, the excavation suggests the anomaly may have been unrelated ground fill and debris taken from another location, according to the briefing.
“As a city, 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,” a release quotes Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.
Death toll estimates vary from about three dozen to 300 or more. Survivors were forced to live in internment camps overseen by National Guard members for a time.
"A conspiracy of silence" surrounds the massacre, Danney Goble, a regional historian and University of Oklahoma professor, said in an overview of Oklahoma's 2001 official report.
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Most victims were buried during a period of martial law following the violence, Scott Hammerstedt, a researcher at the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, University of Oklahoma, told USA TODAY in December. With few official records, researchers must rely on oral history and witnesses to help identify locations where victims may be buried.
“Travesty” isn't a strong enough word to describe the carnage, he said.
In December, Hammerstedt co-authored a report that said a "number of unmarked burials" were likely present at Oaklawn Cemetery and suggested further excavation.
While the state produced an official report in 2001, no one has ever been prosecuted or punished by the government at any level – municipal, county, state or federal – over criminal acts linked to the massacre, the historical society said.
Contributing: Doug Stanglin; The Associated Press.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tulsa race massacre: Excavation of potential mass grave site underway