TULSA, Oklahoma – Nearly a century after a brutal race massacre left as many as 300 black people dead, this city began to dig Monday for suspected mass graves from the violence.

A team of scientists, archaeologists and forensics anthropologists began preparing an 8-foot-by-10-foot hole at the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery, where ground penetrating radar last year detected anomalies consistent with mass graves.

But with an excavator nearby, thunder boomed and lightning lit the sky. Oklahoma’s chief archaeologist, Kary Stackelbeck, announced that the dig would be delayed by an hour until the storm passed.

Workers prepare the test excavation site at Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, where the city plans to dig for suspected mass graves from a 1921 race massacre. Photo by Nick Oxford for The Washington Post

As a light rain fell, several descendants of massacre survivors waited near pink crepe myrtle trees outside the graveyard’s wrought iron fence to watch the excavation.

J. Kavin Ross, whose great-grandfather owned a business that was destroyed in the massacre, said he had waited a long time for this day.

“I’ve waited for this day for over two decades to find out the truth of Tulsa’s public secrets,” said Ross, a photojournalist and teacher in Tulsa, who spent years of his own time interviewing survivors of the massacre. “A lot of people knew about it but wouldn’t tell about it.”

Although the scientists said their radar findings are promising, the only way to determine precisely what lies beneath the ground is to dig. The excavation was delayed for three months by the coronavirus pandemic.

The digging comes weeks after President Donald Trump appeared in Tulsa at a campaign rally, which drew more than 6,000 people to an indoor arena where few people wore masks. Tulsa City-County Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart said last week that a spike in new coronavirus cases in Tulsa may be linked to Trump’s rally and the protests it generated.

But Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum decided not to postpone the work at Oaklawn a second time.

“In the past 99 years, no other agency or government entity has moved this far into an investigation that will seek truth into what happened in Tulsa in 1921,” he said. “As we resume with the test excavation, we’re taking all precautions to do so under the safest environment possible. I’m thankful for the health and well-being of our partners who have diligently coordinated with our team to move forward with this work during the constraints of the pandemic and record heat we are expecting.”

An excavator is driven to the site Monday morning. Photo by Nick Oxford for The Washington Post

The excavation will take up to two weeks and is part of “a feasibility study to determine the presence or absence of human remains, determine the nature of the interments, and obtain data to help inform the future steps in the investigation, including appropriate recovery efforts,” the city said.

The teams of scientists, who plan to proceed carefully so as not to disturb nearby marked graves, will use heavy machinery to remove the top layers of soil. The rest of the excavation will be done by hand, conducted by forensic anthropologists and archaeologists. If the city finds unmarked human remains at the site, the state Medical Examiner’s Office will begin an investigation to determine how the person died.

“The cause of death determination would be an important step to the investigation as remains will be close to 100 years old and a Spanish Influenza outbreak occurred in Tulsa in 1919 prior to the Race Massacre in 1921,” city officials said in a statement.

The city is expected to issue daily updates on the excavation.

The work comes nearly seven months after a team of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, led by the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma, announced that they had found “possible common graves” at two sites in Tulsa.

They identified the sites as the Canes, located on a bluff along the Arkansas River near Highway 75, and the Sexton area of Oaklawn Cemetery, which is a few blocks from Greenwood, the black community that was destroyed during one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

The massacre began May 31, 1921, after a black teenager, who was working as a shoe shiner in downtown Tulsa, was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. A white mob marched on Greenwood, one of the most affluent black communities in the country.

Historians believe that as many as 300 black people were killed, and 40 square blocks of what was known as Black Wall Street were destroyed by fire. The destruction included more than 1,250 homes, churches, schools, businesses, a hospital and library.

Survivors reported seeing bodies tossed into the muddy Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to account for the dead.

For decades afterward, people in Tulsa avoided discussing what had happened. But Bynum has said it is time to find out whether there are mass graves, especially as the city prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

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