mass grave search

Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist specializing in human identification, speaks to a crowd at the Rudisill Regional Library on Thursday. JOEY JOHNSON/for the Tulsa World

The scientists and historians involved in the search for unmarked burial sites from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are tamping down expectations about what will be found.

“Be realistic,” Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield told the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee last week. “A century has passed.”

Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist specializing in human identification, thinks the committee’s work could well be successful, but before the search into some long forgotten corners of the city begins, she wants everyone to know it may not work out ideally.

Death certificates have been found for 37 people — 25 African American and 12 white — killed in the massacre, but most authorities think the actual number of deaths was higher. Stories have circulated since the day after the tragedy of bodies being secretly disposed of by various means.

Mayor G.T. Bynum formed the committee in May in an effort to get to the truth of the issue; but everyone should acknowledge that a large number of complications could frustrate the effort. If there is a secret mass grave, it was created nearly 100 years ago by people who weren’t anxious that its location ever be found. Doing so now will take a great deal of skill and some luck.

The search is worth the risk that it won’t be successful; but before that search begins, we should think out loud about what conclusions are appropriate if nothing or very little is uncovered.

It wouldn’t imply that there wasn’t a horrible race crime committed in 1921. We already know that to be true.

It wouldn’t imply that only 37 people died in the massacre. At least 37 people died and a huge expanse of private property was destroyed, which is horror enough. There’s ample oral history to support the belief that there were more. The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

It would imply that history is sometimes frustrating but that does not release us from the obligation to continue pursuing the full truth.

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