Three days into the tedious process of searching Oaklawn Cemetery for unmarked burial sites from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the lead scientist in charge of the surveying work took time Wednesday to explain why his team would not be able to search under the adjacent Inner Dispersal Loop.
On Monday, the first day the Oklahoma Archeological Survey began searching, members of the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee asked why the IDL was not under consideration as a place to search for remains of people killed in the racial violence of May 31-June 1, 1921. The IDL was not built until decades after the massacre.
OAS investigation team leader Scott Hammerstedt said the three types of scanning technology used in the current search would not be able to generate valid readings there because of all the metal embedded in the highway’s concrete structure.
“The problem with doing any work there is the radar pulse will go through the ground but it is really affected by metal,” Hammerstedt said. “The fact that there is so much rebar put in the concrete in highways, especially in those bridges, is going to cause a lot of problems for our machines, and we’re not going to be able to penetrate it.”
That limitation will be disappointing for many who are convinced that remains exist somewhere in the area.
Asked whether any other subsurface technology could work around such an obstacle, Hammerstedt was certain that none was available that he was aware of, saying every radar unit would encounter the same problems.
As of now, he said, the focus will remain on completing the work at Oaklawn before moving on to Newblock Park, 1414 W. Charles Page Boulevard, and an area near there, as well as at Rolling Oaks Cemetery, 4300 E. 91st St., as scheduled, to determine whether any underground anomalies can be detected. The OAS team, however, would be open to investigating other areas later, Hammerstedt said.
“The first step is to figure out if anything can be excavated and (if bodies are found) whether they’re going to be victims or not,” he said. “There are going to be people who had nothing to do with the massacre buried in this cemetery in unmarked graves.”
After being forced to restart its efforts on Tuesday because the data obtained Monday was compromised by electronics interference, the team was able to scan much of Oaklawn as planned.
“We are fully caught up and are almost finished searching the second area of the cemetery,” said Hammerstedt, who was unsure whether the search at Oaklawn would be completed as planned by the end of the week. “We will hopefully know more by Thursday.”
Once the search has wrapped up, the group will spend a considerable amount of time analyzing the collected data, which will take several weeks. Whether anything of significance will be found is unknown.
The survey team hopes to present a report on its findings to local officials by December.
“If we don’t find anything here, there are a couple of possibilities,” said Hammerstedt.
It could be that “the bodies are just not able to be seen,” he said, “but my gut feeling and my experience in the past is that if there is something here, we will find it.”