Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield continues a tradition of service at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Lab.

UF Forensic Anthropologist answers questions about Tulsa Race Massacre on Reddit AMA

By Karla Arboleda

Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield will continue to excavate a mass grave in Oklahoma that is believed to hold remains of victims from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

Stubblefield, interim director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida, will return to Tulsa next week to dig with a team of researchers at the Oaklawn Cemetery during the 100th anniversary of the violence that destroyed a thriving Black community. She fielded questions live on Reddit AMA just ahead of the centennial:

Q: How do you decide where to dig?

A: The historians on our team (Scott Ellsworth and the late Dick Warner) interviewed survivors back in the 80s. Those accounts led to commonly mentioned locations suspected as mass graves. Between that and the newspaper record for the decedents that had death certificates (individuals who died on May 31 and June 1), we were able to target Oaklawn Cemetery (death certficates), Rolling Oaks Cemetery (witness accounts), New Block Park (witness account), and the Canes (witness account).

Q: Will your work in OK be largely the excavation and cataloging of any remains or artifacts uncovered, or will it also involve comparing said remains and artifacts against testimonials and records?

A: I will be exhuming the remains, and then examining them for features that are associated with biological sex, age at death, ancestry, signs of health that might have been recorded in a record or known as part of an identity (think broken leg versus broken rib), and very importantly, signs of trauma that might be related to a cause of death. I will be trying for identification, but we have few records for the individuals buried in Oaklawn.

Q: What evidence might you find in mass graves that would help reveal the series of events? Or, in more general terms, would you speak to what you hope to learn about the timeline in your research? As an Oklahoman, thank you for this AMA, and thank you for your work.

A: We are really looking for this kind of evidence. Placement of coffins relative to the dimensions of the grave, presence or absence of coffins across an area or at-depth, whether remains are articulated, especially within the span or depth of a single mass grave–these are all great clues to sequence.

Q: How do you go about identifying particular victims in a setting like this? Is it context + the general info you can get from the skeleton like gender, height, and age range? Or is there more detailed info you can get from individual skeletons that narrow down the identity of the remains to a specific person who we know was murdered in this event?

A: For a setting like this (where multiple decades have passed), I use historical information (death certificates, funeral home records, newspapers) and cross reference details with the biological data. When so many years have passed, it can be difficult to get specific information about an individual (although I have the same problem today, due to record retention schedules for dental records). DNA is the next step when paper records aren’t available.

Q: If I know of a potential mass grave site that’s part of local and regional lore, what path would I take to try and get it researched and better understood?

A: The Tulsa Race Massacre investigation finally proceeded due to local government support, but there was continuous non-governmental support from Greenwood residents. I would start by trying to build interest within your local community, especially including the landowner of the site. It’s difficult to investigate an historic mass grave if the landowner is not on board. Definitely use any documents you can find that might place the mass grave site, including funeral home records if you can get them, or other money trails involving disposition. This is not a quick process, but the more local people that are sharing the history can help build support for a physical investigation. If you have access to the land, you could contact your local archaeology or geology department (start with archaeology) for help doing geophysical survey of the site. This will require funding, probably, so I would conduct this stage after securing community support, unless I am independently wealthy.

Q: Prior to your current work, what was your most memorable case?

A: Probably Valujet, 1996. We (Dr. Maples) were asked to identify the children. That was complicated, my first lesson in massive blunt force trauma, mass disaster response, and family support centers. We identified all but one, as the FBI got a fingerprint id on that one.

Q: What advice do you have for an aspiring anthropology student that isn’t sure about which (anthropology) field to focus on?

A: This is a toughie, it can depend on how well developed the Anthropology program is at your institution. I’m assuming you are an undergrad, because it’s too late to be asking this question in grad school. Take at least 2 of the 3 subfield courses. If there is an applied course (archie field school, human osteo, ethnographic methods, some kind of linguistics class) take the ones that are interesting. That choice alone is a clue, if you don’t want to take a particular applied course. Ask yourself which fields you read about on your own time. I had read Lucy, which made me realize I had some kind of aptitude for anthropology.

Q: Is there any technology available that could help you locate the graves? Also, the best of luck with this work. It’s going to be monumental in recreating an erased history.

A: We’ve been using three geophysical survey techniques: ground penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, and geomagnetic analysis. The geomagnetic signals have revealed several unmarked (on the surface) graves in our Original 18 area, some within the mass grave boundary.

Q: What interactions have you had with the families/descendants of those who were killed during the massacre, and what do they think of the research you’re conducting? Have they been helpful in any way, have you gotten any direct opposition or support?

A: I have not had direct contact with any of the families of our identified decedents, not yet. First we have to verify that the mass grave we have in Oaklawn is the one. The circumstances are right, but I need to study the skeletal material. In the meanwhile, there is a Tulsa resident, at least one, who is doing the legwork to contact families, at least of the two that have headstones in the Original 18 (Black decedents buried in the Black Potter’s Field after the race massacre) area of Oaklawn.