"The ultimate goal here is to be able to connect the victims of this event with their family," Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said
Oaklawn Cemetery
Oaklawn Cemetery
| Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

A test excavation of a potential mass grave site in Tulsa launched on Monday afternoon, nearly 100 years after a race massacre that potentially killed as many as 300 Black people.

Scientists, archaeologists, and forensic anthropologists began digging at Oaklawn Cemetery with the hopes of discovering just what caused an underground anomaly consistent with mass graves that was picked up by scanning earlier this year, Mayor G.T. Bynum said at a press conference.

“This is a historic day for Tulsa and for our country,” Bynum said. “It should not have taken 99 years for us to be doing this investigation. But this generation of Tulsans is committed to doing what’s right by our neighbors, and following the truth wherever it leads us.”

The team will assess whether or not there are human remains at the site, and if there are, they will pursue a recovery excavation at a later date, said Kary Stackelbeck, state archeologist at the state of Oklahoma.

The dig was initially set to begin in April but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Additional delays hit on Monday due to inclement weather.

Brenda Nails Alford, public oversight committee chair of the 1921 Graves commission, said the goal was to “bring some sense of closure to that horrible time in our history.”

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The massacre occurred in June 1921 in an area of Tulsa 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.

After a young Black man who rode in an elevator with a white woman was arrested and allegedly accused of sexual assault, an “inflammatory” local news report sparked a confrontation between Black and white mobs, and soon, white rioters had descended upon the Greenwood District to loot and burn 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.

“The ultimate goal here is to be able to connect the victims of this event with their family,” Bynum said. “That is a tremendous challenge. That is not something we’d expect to have wrapped up at the end of the year. That’s something that will take years to do.”

The test excavation will take up to two weeks, and any human remains found will go to the Medical Examiner’s Office so they can investigate a cause of death, according to the Washington Post.

The newspaper reported that descendants of survivors of the massacre were present on Monday, and looked on from behind the graveyard’s fence.

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