Archeologists shifted their search for unmarked burial sites from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to Newblock Park and the location of a long-gone sewage lift station on Tuesday.
Scientists from the Oklahoma Archeological Survey and the state Medical Examiner’s Office moved their subsurface scanning equipment after more than a week at Oaklawn Cemetery, 1133 E. 11th Street.
Lead investigator Scott Hammerstedt said the team will eventually return to Oaklawn but for the next few days will concentrate on Newblock Park, 1414 W. Charles Page Blvd., which in 1921 was a city dump.
The site is the same one examined by the Oklahoma Archeological Survey in the late 1990s with inconclusive results.
Historian Scott Ellsworth, a consultant to the city on the project, said the hope is that more sensitive equipment and better soil conditions — the ground was rock hard 20 years ago — will lead to more definitive conclusions this time around.
The site has been targeted because of considerable oral history concerning bodies from the massacre being taken to the area and to the Arkansas River bordering it and because of a story from the mid-1940s that a junior high school student stumbled upon some human bones at a construction site there.
Ellsworth, who has spent decades investigating the massacre and reports that many more than the 37 officially counted were killed in the fighting, thinks bodies may have been brought to the river’s edge and then either distributed elsewhere or buried in a nearby trench.
It is evidence of that trench that the Oklahoma Archeological Survey is looking for.
Ellsworth said his theory takes into account several stories, including one told by historian Ed Wheeler in the early 1970s. A man told Wheeler he stood on the old 11th Street Bridge and counted 67 corpses laid out on the river bank a day or two after the massacre, and that they all had disappeared the next day.
Ellsworth said the bodies, if they existed, could have been pushed into the river, but he thinks it more likely they would have been buried, mostly because of sanitation considerations.
In the 1990s, Ellsworth and the late Dick Warner learned of a man — then long dead — who said he had come upon human bones at an excavation site in Newblock Park around 1944. The man was in junior high school at the time and claimed to have taken a human skull that he later tried to sell to classmates.
Ellsworth said he and Warner subsequently interviewed dozens of people who said they had heard the story.
The two researchers eventually determined that a sewage lift station was under construction in Newblock Park at the time period in question.
“There’s a lot of conjecture involved, but there was an anomaly,” Ellsworth said, referring to the search.
The OAS team plans to complete its work at Newblock Park on Wednesday and then return to Oaklawn to scan additional spaces in the southwest corner of the cemetery.
Plans to scan sites at Rolling Hills Cemetery in south Tulsa have been temporarily placed on hold while arrangements are worked out with the owner, Ellsworth said. Researchers believe African Americans may have buried relatives and friends killed in the massacre at unmarked sites in what was then Booker T. Washington Cemetery.