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Researchers Still Searching For Resting Places Of Tulsa Massacre Victims

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ninety-nine years ago in Tulsa, Okla., white mobs attacked the neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. They destroyed homes, set businesses ablaze and killed as many as 300 people in what's now known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Now, as Chris Polansky of member station KWGS reports, the city is still trying to find the final resting place of some of those victims.

CHRIS POLANSKY, BYLINE: Roberta Clardy has a lawn chair set up on a patch of grass between U.S. Highway 75 and the gates of Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery.

ROBERTA CLARDY: Right now, it's been more emotional than it was yesterday.

POLANSKY: She's watching a team of researchers use shovels and heavy machinery to dig in a corner of the cemetery with no headstones. Investigators say ground-penetrating radar suggests the presence of a mass grave here. Many victims have never been found, even after almost a century. Clardy says her family has been in Tulsa for generations, since before the massacre.

CLARDY: I don't know if I can explain. You're emotional, just feeling really horrible. What in the world were we doing for 99 years?

G T BYNUM: All this work that we're doing right now, the city of Tulsa should have been doing this in 1921.

POLANSKY: That's Tulsa's mayor, G.T. Bynum, a Republican. In 2018, he announced City Hall would help fund the work.

BYNUM: It's important to us at the city that the descendants of these victims know that our commitment to this investigation is long-term.

POLANSKY: One of those descendants is Regina Goodwin, an Oklahoma state representative whose district includes the Greenwood neighborhood, the historical center of gravity of Tulsa's Black community.

REGINA GOODWIN: We want all the ancestors to know that they are remembered. We want the public to know that they are deserving of a more sacred resting place, as opposed to being discarded like trash.

POLANSKY: Goodwin is glad the work is being done but says she and others have been sitting on committees and trying to make this happen for decades.

GOODWIN: It's not about 2021. It's really been about the 99 intervening years when very little has been done. We've been taking steps backwards. And I don't think you should have to wait out a centennial.

POLANSKY: Work was scheduled to begin in April but was delayed due to the pandemic. The team has been digging every day since they started on Monday. They say they haven't found remains, but forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield says they feel confident.

PHOEBE STUBBLEFIELD: It's not a hundred percent, but it's a very high level of certainty - enough that, yes, we should dig there. Because you don't disturb dead people just 'cause you feel like it.

POLANSKY: For NPR News, I'm Chris Polansky in Tulsa, Okla.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE'S "ARK.LA.TEX.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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