Historians believe as many as 300 people died during the massacre in June 1921
Tulsa excavation
Excavators in Tulsa
| Credit: Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP

Investigators have discovered a set of human remains in a Tulsa cemetery where scientists, archaeologists and forensic anthropologists have been on the hunt for possible victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said at a press conference on Tuesday that investigators found an intact grave shaft just about 3 feet below ground surface at Oaklawn Cemetery, and that they discovered human remains inside a wooden coffin held together with nails.

“We’re still in the process of analyzing those remains to the best of our ability and to get a better sense of exactly what’s going on with this particular individual,” she said. “It does correspond to one of the locations that was picked up on by the geophysical survey work. So that gives us reason for optimism.”

Stackelbeck said that the team was “optimistic” that they could potentially find a second set of human remains as well.

Tulsa excavation
Tulsa excavation
| Credit: Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP

Though she said that it was still unclear whether the remains were that of a victim of the race massacre, the fact that they were in a coffin was a “good sign.” There was no headstone, but investigators did find a temporary marker nearby.

“We have many other people buried here who are not victims, and so we’re very mindful of that,” she said. “The main thing we’ll be really focusing on is the extent to which the remains are of a condition that would allow for any indications of trauma. That will be first and foremost.”

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Stackelbeck said the team will be continuing its investigation and would extend the excavation work to examine other areas to the west of where the remains were found, and that a second machine had already broken ground on a new excavation.

After scanning picked up an underground anomaly consistent with mass graves earlier this year, the city of Tulsa launched a test excavation in July and began searching once again on Monday, according to the Associated Press.

Experts have been searching for victims of the 1921 race massacre, which occurred that June in an area of the city called the Greenwood District, which contained an affluent, African-American business district often referred to as “Black Wall Street,” according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

A confrontation between Black and white mobs erupted after a young Black man who rode in an elevator with a white woman was arrested and allegedly accused of sexual assault. The conflict soon escalated due to an “inflammatory” local news report, and soon, white rioters looted and burned the area.

When all was said and done, 35 city blocks were destroyed by fire, 800 people had been injured and 36 people were dead, according to initial reports, though historians now believe as many as 300 people died.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said in July that the excavation’s goal was to help connect the victims of the tragedy with their families.

“I’ve waited for this day for over two decades to find out the truth of Tulsa’s public secrets,” J. Kavin Ross, whose great-grandfather’s business was destroyed during the riots, told the Washington Post at the time. “A lot of people knew about it but wouldn’t tell about it.”