A century after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, during which a white mob torched Black homes and businesses in the Oklahoma city’s Greenwood area, which was also known as Black Wall Street, some basic questions about the event remain unanswered. Some estimates that say up to people 300 died, but information on the victims’ identities and exact numbers is missing.
Then, last fall, a clue was discovered: after years of researchers searching for evidence, 11 coffins were found in the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery, and scholars believe they may contain victims’ remains. On Tuesday, the anniversary of the tragedy, in hopes of finding some resolution, a full excavation of the site will begin and is expected to last well into the summer.
“This first excavation is probably not the last, because this site isn’t the only site of interest,” says Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist and a leader of the dig. “If my colleagues and I confirm this summer that these remains are our race-massacre dead, it doesn’t shut the door on what happened in that history.”
Stubblefield, 52, was recruited for this investigation about two decades ago, in part because her parents were Tulsa natives and she grew up visiting family there in the summer. But she didn’t realize she had a personal connection to the massacre until she took the job.
She spoke to TIME about about her family’s ties to this history, what the excavation entails, and how the search for the remains of Tulsa Race Massacre victims fits into a long and troubling history of the careless treatment of Black bodies.
TIME: In general, What does a forensic anthropologist do?
STUBBLEFIELD: I help people who investigate deaths. I help them get an idea what the cause of death is, or I help them identify who the person is, if all that’s left are bones.
Are there certain tools of the trade that forensic anthropologists use that are key to doing your work?
We use a lot of measuring devices. We do a lot of photography. We use infrared light to examine wounds, for example, or bruises or tattoos. And we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how better to improve our analyses. My research is focused on trying to find a better way to estimate time since death; trying to better establish a connection to the community for anatomical gifts, skeletons preferably, because our parent field, physical anthropology, has its history; and in grave piracy. We often lack skeletal remains for any purpose—teaching, research. We lack remains that have clear sources, you know, someone donated them or they were purchased, back when you could easily purchase a skeleton.