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Archaeologist Scott Hammerstedt looks for answers in Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

Scott Hammerstedt, Ph.D., uses an electrical resistance meter at a site in Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico in 2017. Hammerstedt is currently working to find the remains of African Americans buried in mass graves after the Tulsa race massacre.
Scott Hammerstedt, Ph.D., at a site in Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico in 2017. Image credit: Amanda Regnier.

For almost two years, archaeologist Dr. Scott Hammerstedt has been investigating what happened to the forgotten victims of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, one of the deadliest race massacres in American history. During the massacre, mobs of white rioters attacked and murdered black residents of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And for decades, there has been no official recognition or memorial for the victims.

Hammerstedt, senior researcher of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma, leads a team that’s doing the grim work of looking for evidence that the African-American victims were buried in mass graves. The investigation has been a long time coming, as after the Tulsa Race Riot happened, there was a deliberate cover-up effort by the white rioters.

But the COVID-19 outbreak has stopped Hammerstedt’s work in its tracks, leaving the AAAS Member quarantined at home for three months.

“The hope is that sometime, maybe in late July or early August we’ll do the test excavations,” Hammerstedt says, adding that it’ll depend on what the university allows. Test excavations will be done in an area where the murdered may have been buried to uncover initial evidence.

On May 31, 1921, the Tulsa Race Riot started as an attempt to lynch a black teenage shoe shiner who worked in downtown Tulsa, who was accused of and arrested for allegedly assaulting a white woman, according to The Washington Post.

When the lynch mob of white vigilantes got to the courthouse to kill the teenage boy, they collided with a group of armed black men trying to protect the teen.

Someone fired a shot and for the next 48 hours, white rioters went on a rampage in the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street.

These white rioters, including local police officers, killed up to 300 African Americans and left more than 10,000 homeless after looting and burning their homes and businesses to the ground. Reports surfaced that airplanes flying overhead launched kerosene bombs on Greenwood.

The people who lost their homes and businesses were never compensated, nor were those who were killed officially memorialized for decades. Some survivors said black bodies were thrown in the Arkansas River and dumped in mass graves.

Both the school’s, and Hammerstedt’s, involvement comes nearly 20 years after Tulsa officials ignored a 2001 report and recommendation from the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The report called for a limited physical examination of Oaklawn Cemetery for a potential mass grave and also for the consideration of issuing reparations for survivors or their descendants.

In 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum announced he would reopen the investigation. The city of Tulsa then contacted the Oklahoma Archeological Survey in the fall of 2018 to conduct geophysical surveys of certain sites. For Hammerstedt, and many others in his community, it was more than past time to investigate the massacre. His work is now part of the first authorized investigation into this dark chapter of Tulsa’s history.

“There’s a big lack of trust between the community and the city because of the way the city has handled it over the last 100 years,” Hammerstedt says. This is why Tulsa has been so committed to transparency throughout this process, he added.

Hammerstedt’s team collaborated with historians who identified four potential locations for them to investigate in Tulsa: Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery, The Canes and Rolling Oaks Cemetery.

The team then spent 10 days in October 2019 surveying three of the sites while they awaited permission to do the same on a fourth site — the privately-owned Rolling Oaks Cemetery.

The group used three different kinds of remote sensing equipment: a gradiometer that detects subtle differences in the soil, an electrical resistance meter that senses mild electric currents in the soil while measuring moisture content, and a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) that gives an idea of horizontal features and how deeply they’re buried in the ground.

Data from two locations, a section of Canes and what’s known as the Sexton Area of Oaklawn Cemetery, hints at the possibility of common graves associated with the massacre.

“It’s hard to tell, it’s not like CSI,” Hammerstedt says. “Basically, we’re looking at splotches and so there are a lot of splotches in that area.”

Still, geophysical surveys aren’t enough to determine the nature of the splotches, also called anomalies. Excavation and archaeological testing will determine whether the anomalies are common burials associated with the race riot as opposed to the 1918 Spanish flu. For example, scientists will have to examine the bones for evidence of gunshot wounds and other examples of physical violence.

Oaklawn Cemetery has unmarked burials in other areas of the cemetery, including several potential burials in the Clyde Eddy area and its extensions and possible graves in the Original 18 area where Hammerstedt was told by historians that 18 black people were buried after the massacre. 

 “It’s pretty suggestive to us,” Hammerstedt says of the Sexton area. “This is where our excavations are going to be taking place first.”

Forensic anthropologists from the University of Florida and Oklahoma’s state archaeologist will lead that portion of the investigation. Meanwhile, the owners of Rolling Oaks Cemetery gave the team permission to conduct a geophysical survey on the property in late April. And on April 1, the group was supposed to run test excavations of the Sexton area.

But the group had to postpone both projects because of COVID-19.

Through all of this, Hammerstedt knows it’s important that his findings help Tulsa find some answers and heal from the unspeakable tragedy that has been hidden for decades. 

“In many ways it’s another archaeological project but it means so much to so many people that it’s been a really unique experience for us,” Hammerstedt says. “I really like the idea that the community is involved and the public oversight committee is all African American, which is what it should be. And they have the final say in anything that happens.”

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Lenore T. Adkins