On October 19, 2020, in a corner of what was once the African American section of the Potter’s Field in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, a backhoe begins scraping away layer after layer of red Oklahoma earth. Workers in high-visibility vests and orange hard hats prepare to join the excavation. Phoebe Stubblefield, Interim Director of the C.A. Pound Identification Lab at the University of Florida, looks on, bearing witness to a site that could be one of the final, unmarked resting places for victims of a massacre that happened over 100 years in the past.
Phoebe was one of the original members of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission created over 20 years ago. At that time, the investigation was put on pause. Upon Mayor GT Bynum’s renewal of the investigation, Phoebe was again called in to be a part of the team locating and identifying victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
In this interview, Phoebe gives an overview of the investigation from a forensic anthropological perspective. She shares how the remains are being located, what they expected to find vs what they are seeing, and the process by which they are beginning to identify the remains. She also discusses the challenges the team is facing, such as locating cemetery records from the time period of the massacre and how the team is overcoming these challenges.
Laura: Thank you for tuning in to our annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. We are very lucky to be here with Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield today. Phoebe, why don’t you tell us about yourself and a little bit about your background?
Phoebe: Certainly. So, I’m the Interim Director of the C.A. Pound Identification Lab at the University of Florida. I’ve held that role for a little more than two years now and the lab was founded by William R Maples to provide skeletal analysis service for mostly medical examiners in Florida (and at that time, New York). So, we were one of the earliest, sometimes I want to say the earliest, formal lab to provide both recovery and analysis of skeletal remains, well not actually skeletonized, but advanced decomposition. When Dr. Maples passed away in ’97, I was his last doctoral student. And then, left after I got my PhD in the normal course of things. Worked at the University of North Dakota for 15 years running the forensic science program there. And, after getting that program into a reasonable shape, UF had the position for Interim Director and I had come back to Florida to help out with casework, and then I stepped into that role.
So, that was at about the same time as the Tulsa Race Massacre investigation started to come back, because I was involved in it 20 years ago as a consultant to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. So there are only a few of us left after 20 years, but 20 years ago, we produced a report and my chapter in it was co-written with my colleague and I wrote what we would do if we’d get to a forensic component. The commission, at that time, didn’t go forward, and then 20 years later, mayor GT Bynum of the City of Tulsa asked Scott Ellsworth, who was the lead historian on the Race Riot Commission report if we would come back. If he could get the team together as it were. So, out of that original team, Clyde Snow was the senior forensic anthropologist, but he had passed, so I became that person and one of the historians had passed (Richard Warner) but his daughter had a lot of his papers, so we worked with her on some of that, and the state archaeologists of Oklahoma came in, because Bob Brooks had retired. Leslie Rankenhill retired. She keeps in touch, but I can’t quite get her to come into the field, but one day I hope so. And it’s just really Scott and I from the first group.
Laura: That is a remarkable history. We are very lucky to have you talking with us today. There are quite a few talks about the Tulsa Race Massacre and you really… Reading what you’ve shared already about some of the bodies that have been exhumed in Oak Lawn and the work that you’re doing… We’d love to hear about that. What can you tell us about that?
Phoebe: Even now as I sit here, we’re in the field working on the ‘Original 18’ as we call them in the area. Last summer, or the summer of 2021, we had opened up this L shaped block with legs coming off of it, representing… So the cemetery is shaped in rows. And we opened up about five rows, and across several rows, sampling for is there anyone there? We had done a geophysical survey originally, but the soil there is very clay-rich and doesn’t respond well to ground-penetrating radar. So, we knew there was something under there, but we were getting our data from… I think it was the magnetometer data that was showing us signals, but they weren’t organized, and when we finally excavated (this is still 2021), we found that there was unmarked burials. So, there are formal burials, there are faced as burials, but is there a marker?
Once there was a marker, our first burial, Burial 1, she had a marker. It was buried. She had a temporary grave marker that was buried in its upright position. At some point, someone had brought in a lot of fill and had covered up the existing grave marker in its position. So, a lot of the burials there showed that some kind of everything is covered with another 3 feet of soil and then you have the natural soil. So, part of that has to do with the landscape, because they filled in a stream to acquire land to keep the extent of the cemetery. At any rate, we exposed a little over 30 burials. We did not exhume all of them, because some of them were children. The cemetery has a lot of children, and it’s an organized cemetery, so they were buried in a row, and in that row, we found our first individual that has gunshot wounds.
So, he was burial 27, male, mostly black. I saw mostly, because the preservation allowing me to estimate his ancestry, he has signs of being of African descent, but not the best preservation for say, a forensic case. He had multiple gunshot wounds and he was buried in the infant row, but at a depth different from the infants. Next to him was an infant buried at the same deeper depth.
So, that was kind of an anomaly. We didn’t expect an adult in the child row, but to see 2 buried at an atypical depth. We do know from our records that an infant was found dead at the same time period (May 21st, June 21st) and they had buried 21 individuals – 20 adults and 1 infant. So, 21 individuals somewhere in the Colored Potter’s Field of Oaklawn.
So, we got 1, and based on death certificate data, we should have about 14 or 15 gunshot victims. The number varies somewhat, because we have several but for were burned and there were no autopsies. So, if they were shot and burned, we won’t know, so how many individuals we will find, we don’t know, but we know we haven’t looked sufficiently, because we only have one that fits our criteria of being a male in a plain casket and having some sign of gunshot trauma.
With the preservation we see, will we be able to tell if they have gunshot trauma? I think it will vary because there’s always the wound that only hits tissue. These are softer lead bullets, at least the one that we found on the gentleman so far. If it hits bone, it’s going to leave scatter, and we could detect the difference between lead scatter and the rocks in the soil, so I do have hope, but there’s just no identifying someone with a gunshot if the bullet’s not there. So, I’m hoping everyone will have adequate signs of trauma, but first we’ve got to find them.
So right now we’re exposing new area. New area south and east of the infant row. We’re saving that for later, because it states being infants, we’re just going to look, and we can see in the soil a stain in the soil that’s been shaped by digging and putting in a container. If it’s a small square, then we won’t excavate further.
Laura: What a remarkable mix of the stories that have been told and the histories of the area and then using that to excavate and then examine and try to identify very specifically…
Phoebe: We are finding a lot of data. I’ve looked somewhat into how the cemetery was used, because the time period from its origin to about 1929, there was one Sexton, and the end date is set from when he disappeared from the city directory, so it could have been in ’28, but that was one individual. What we’re encountering in the cemetery, you know, you say mass grave or you say potter’s field, both of those names are charged with imagery and whatever your favorite style of mass grave is, that’s what you think of when you say mass grave. You think potter’s field… I say potter’s field and I think chaos. You know, the whole field is just skeletons sticking half out the earth. I’m really picturing this image from Mexico of a church cemetery potter’s field where people were burned and skeletal materials and that is the kind of landscape that you’d think we’d encounter. The reality is that organized cemetery, even in the potter’s field and we’re looking at the mental landscape of that one Sexton operating until 1928 or ’29. After that, who knows?
I don’t know if I’ll be able to test it, but I’d like to think that… What we can see is that man had records. Sexton Field. He said he kept records, but he had a great special memory and he said to his grave diggers, “yep, dig here and we never hit another grave.” And, yet, the records the city has for the cemetery, the pages for that part of the cemetery, those pages were removed from the cemetery records.
So, I think it’s probably fairly obvious where they’re buried, but we don’t have the records, so we have to do the hard search and it’s probably obvious in part because it’s an organized cemetery and not a chaos cemetery, so they have to get me those records at some point. But, I’m thinking it might have been as early as when he died, somebody pulled them, but we’ll never know when it occurred. We just know it was prior to when… What was the earliest that Scott said he looked into it? Certainly prior to the ‘70s, but yeah. Those records are lost.
So, we combine what records we can find with this ground search that makes me go, huh, if we’re in an area that has no headstones, is it empty? No headstones anywhere. So, our excavation in 2020, the second we excavated the part on the map that’s called the Sexton’s Area, and it is blank, so there was some crepe myrtle trees buried along the fence and we excavated ahead of them and to the north of them and didn’t encounter a single burial, so it is as blank as it looks like on the map. And I assume it was dedicated to the Sextons as he would have had children and buried his family there. Near the edge of it, the Sexton that worked afterwards, he’s buried there, but he’s buried near the very edge near the black part of the… So sections 13 and 14 and part of section 12 were dedicated to Black paid burials and section 15, was I’m pretty sure, the ambiguous burials, just because of some of the data that I’ve come across. And everyone else was mostly white, sort of, or not black might be better. But I think there was a time when if you just got in early with your money, you could get a place no matter what color you were, but I’m still testing that.
There was this one area – either section 1 or 4 where the person owns a block and it says their color in the cemetery records that we do have, so I go, “Huh, they got in there early.” There was a time when you could be buried there no matter who you were. Actually, for most of the cemetery’s history, I think. But, I think, sometime in the early ‘30s they stopped burying people, because they couldn’t tell who was buried in section 20, because the records were thrown out and it was too risky. But we are still encountering empty spots, so some of that data is still actually correct, so how conservative is this location? We’ll only know once we keep digging, because I doubt those records are just somewhere else; the pages from the cemetery book. So, we’ll just keep excavating, keep excavating.
Laura: Wow, so you really are in the heart of it again.
Phoebe: So we clear the soil off until we can see the outlines of the burial. Sometimes, because a lot of soil was brought in to raise the ground level and cover up existing burials. Which I find just painful. Can you try a little harder? A monument that takes 2 people to move, they just bury it. Of course, now we don’t know who did that, but still it’s like, “Really?! Really?!” Once we, in the soil that was brought in, sometimes it’s really hard to see the outline of the casket, but we’ve got pretty good at reading this landscape. The archaeologists and all of us who stand there and go, “yeah”… The archaeologists are very skilled. My archaeology colleagues know what they’re doing, so today they’re hand digging those burials and by the time I get back, I may have my first arrivals at the lab. But maybe they’ll text me and let me know. We’ll see.
Laura: Wow, that would change your talk dramatically, or add to it, absolutely. You know, I don’t think a lot of people realize how much goes into this. Historians, archaeologists, your specialty with skeletal remains, the fact that you worked on this 20 years ago and you’re back again. I want to get more into the science of what you do, but before we do, you have roots in Tulsa. How does this feel to you?
Phoebe: Um, it really feels like a blessing. You know, I didn’t go into forensic anthropology because I knew there was a race massacre riot or disaster or any of the labels that it had. I didn’t know about it, because my parents didn’t talk about it. They didn’t live in Tulsa until after, but their parents weren’t there. They were in Clearview, Texas. No, they were all in Oklahoma by then, but at any rate, only my aunt was living in Tulsa. So, she lost her home to the riot, but they were relatively well off. Ellis Walker Woods was my uncle and Anna was… I’m actually related to her, because her sister married my grandfather. So, they Woods recovered readily and led part of the recovery. He was part of the local high school, so that was one of the back-up hospital until they built another hospital. So, despite all that activity, I hadn’t heard about it. When Scott Ellsworth invited me to participate in the Race Riot Commission Report, I said, “Hey, there’s a report that we’re putting together because there was a race riot in Tulsa?” And my mother said, “Yeah, your Aunt Anna lost her house.” So, she knew the whole time, but it wasn’t something that was on their radar.
So, coming back to Tulsa now is interesting to me, because I see all these forces acting or the outcomes of history and race relations. Some part of me… Tulsa for a while was the same setting as people encountered in the south. And I grew up in Los Angeles, so I had a different experience. You know that book, the Warmth of Other Suns? I hadn’t read that book until this investigation started and I see little echoes, because I go, “oh my parents did that.” Only they did that from Tulsa. My dad went to college. He was one of the first black college students at the University of Michigan and I found this little snippet that I found in… You know all the little piles of paper that you find after your parents have passed? He had gotten a scholarship to the University of Michigan. He and 3 of his classmates. I said, “oh, I had no idea. That’s how they were connected. All this history.” And once he got his degree, he packed his family up and they moved to California and that actual practice, that outcome happened to a few survivors, that I’ve traced, of the race massacre.
So, OW Gurlee, he and his wife, they tried to recover and you’d see them borrowing money for their furniture and things in ’22 and ’23, but by ’24 they were LA. And that’s where they lived until they died. One of the families… This is probably Alison’s story, so I’m not going to tell it, because I think Alison Wilde will tell it. But we traced this woman that we were looking for and her sons moved to California. Oh, everybody moves to California.
So, you have actions where you oppress people or harass them or whatever you’re doing to try and have a similar economy using black people that existed prior in slavery, so whatever the echo of the economy is, and the black people get up and move. But, I look at that and we used to talk about White Flight in LA, but here, I see, with this southern migration, you take the people who are able to migrate, and they’re going to be your most alert or sharpest or motivated people and they get up and leave. And who stays? You know, people who are getting by or maybe aren’t going to change the world, and what does that do to your society to have this constant drain? You get ahead and those people leave. And you get ahead and they leave again. And that’s the large history of African American interaction with the south and other places. So, I have some to look at Oklahoma more like it was south too. It wasn’t quite as bad, actually. Not at all as bad, but I see those same forces were in effect.
So, coming back to Tulsa, especially as an adult where I see the echoes of here’s where my aunt and uncle lived and here’s where… My grandfather’s house was raised, so I can’t even find the lot, but my aunt’s house is still there. And my cousins live in it and I look at that and I go, “That neighborhood hasn’t changed at all. That house is the same house.” If I knew better, I’d find my uncle’s house. But I go over here, downtown, we never went downtown. We visited the square once as a teenager vacationing with my parents, so seeing Tulsa as that kind of city where your money is green. You can access it no matter what color you are. It has that aspect. I can do that. While my cousin, who grew up there, and returned to Tulsa to take care of his parents, he still has that hesitation of can black people go there? Not as bad as his mother did, though. I would visit as an adult and I said to my 2 aunts, “hey, let’s go to this diner over here on Route 66, this art deco in style. Let’s go eat there.” My senior aunt turns to her sister and says, “Do black people eat there?” And I sit there and I think for a second and then I say, “Yeah, I think it’s probably safe.” So, that was their world. And I get it. Who wants their food sneezed on or spat in? It’s not like that doesn’t happen no matter what color you are, but that was their world. Their son has shades of it. He expects to move back to Seattle, because he doesn’t want to live in racist Tulsa (that’s his expression, not mine). And when I come into town and say, “hey, let’s go over to the gathering place.” He’s like, “I never knew this was over here.” We’re talking social economics here. This isn’t just about race. This is where your money will take you. I’m not saying you won’t run into walls, but your money is green. And seeing that development is really all this twisted together visions and blessings, because my experiences in Tulsa work for me. I have a harder time in Florida than I do in Tulsa as a black person. So, I find that a little ironic, considering the nature of this research, but also appropriate, because Tulsa has moved on faster than other places. I like seeing that, because this city of Tulsa is not the same city of Tulsa as 1921 and reading the history of that time, I can tell I’ve only scratched the surface of what was going on during the reconstruction phase when the Greenwood residents were trying to rebuild and having the City Commissioner say that they can’t rebuild and putting the police to stopping the rebuilding. Police with thugs. So you see the Greenwood residents writing that “they’re thugs and then they have the nerve to say, ‘hey you need to keep hiring us.’” We don’t need to rebuild, we don’t need those people, we’re not going to pay the police to stop you, we lost that fight. Yet, the thugs saying, “Can’t you pay us? Can’t you Greenwood people keep paying us because we need to keep working. We’re the police. You need us.” And they’re going, “No, you guys are the ones attacking us and keeping us from rebuilding.” Yeah, there’s a newspaper article.
I’ve been looking for side information about where the decedents are, so even though I’m skeletal, I sat down and said, “Ok, let’s look at all the death certificates.” Well, Clyde Snow got all the death certificates, but he passed away, and he’s about as organized as I am, so we couldn’t find them. So, I ordered all of the ones for June and July and August and then I just kept going until I ran into December, because we needed to pick up people who had died after the fact and could we get any indication of if they had a riot death. You know, did they write ‘riot’ on the certificate? Getting the death certificates has been helpful. We can’t hardly read them. They’re written in cursive, so it’s a slow process. We’re only through July and then we have special cases that we’re hitting here and there, but I’ll leave that to one of my colleagues to talk about.
But the other part of that, because it’s taking a long time to read these things and most of them are children, so it’s just a lot of… We take for granted the success of having children when maybe 1/3 (it depends on the month) were born stillborn or premature, fell in a fire, drank stricknine, stillborn, stillborn. 1/3 of the death certificates. And there were times when the newspaper said “The Stork Beat the Grim Reaper”, so that is the life in 1921. Month to month. Actually, earlier too. 1910. I’ve looked at a lot of… I looked at 1910 and earlier, because the Sextons would make a report of how many people he buried in a month and some years he’d make an annual report and the city doesn’t find the reports, just the minutes from those minutes, but if I had the reports then I could conceivably come up with an approximate number of people who should be buried in Oak Lawn. But, they didn’t keep those, so I only have the newspaper versions which are… When they reported, when they didn’t, but that’s how I get all these accounts of how hard it was to get out of childhood from the 1900’s up through the 1920’s.
And they were struggling with tuberculosis and typhoid. They would vaccinate for typhoid. That’s one of the things they did to everyone in the concentration camps, because they didn’t want an outbreak. Measles. We see signs of childhood high fevers in some of the children that we’ve excavated. They have a feature called enamel hyperplasia where if it’s really bad, if you have a really high fever when you’re an infant, it’s just the crowns of your teeth. You know how your teeth form? So, when it’s just the cusps forming, the high fever turns off the enamel production, but the tooth keeps growing, so the dentin is exposed. Sometimes it’s just a wrinkle in otherwise smooth face in enamel. And other times, it’s just strings of divots like necklace like rows. So, a necklace here, and then a good one where you’re healthy, and then another necklace and oh, you survived? So, repeated bouts and severe high fever. Just has to be a high, high fever. So, measles or probably mumps too. Some of the individuals must have caught every single childhood disease in the cache, because their teeth were just necklaces. I think that’s why we saw so many gold teeth, because they don’t look good and they can be more fragile. So, at any rate, disease.
Sorry, I keep going on, but it’s a record search plus skeletal material, because I can examine these remains, but we don’t have… A lot of times in a forensic case, I would compare a probable identity to a skeletal identity. How old is the person? How tall are they? But, we don’t have heights. Granted, some of these individuals have WWI registration cards, so we have that height, but the age is a range, the height is a range, the ancestry is pre-filtered because of where we’re digging, and we now know that we can get sex pretty well from this level of preservation. So, that comparison… We get male, such and such height, such and such weight. But, the IDs on the death certificates for these individuals, They all say about 30, 35. They’re all rounded up to 5 and 0 except for a few. I have one unknown where they put 28. I go, “he’s unknown? How do you know he’s 28 years old?” Yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. So, hopefully, maybe, the DNA will tell us who they actually are. Who their identities are, because we can’t do a normal process of elimination where we get down where here are all my black males of a certain age and height. We can’t do that in this case.
Laura: The complexity of everything you just shared. It’s enormous. I think it’s hard for people to process.
Phoebe: It’s hard to keep track. Because sometimes you’re looking at death certificates and going oh my goodness gracious and then try to get old. Just try to get old. Then some of the times I’m reading the newspaper, and one of the mysteries we did resolve that I can actually talk about… So we go oh, we’re looking for 21, minus the 2 that we know are there, minus the 2 infant males buried in Oak Lawn cemetery. Everyone else that was killed, because there were 39 death certificate deaths were transported. There were white males and black males. All the white males were either transported or buried in Rose Hill. That cemetery opened in 1916. But, if you look at the stats, they buried a lot of white people there and not a lot of everybody else. I think 1 Native American was buried there one month that I was looking, but you know, it was rare.
So, I was stumbling through the newspapers and reading about the trail and who caused this. I found an article from June 12, 1921. So this is still full on recovery. Everybody’s still in concentration camps. You know, it was that stage. And a YMCA representative said, “We had to ship some of the patients to other cities. We just can’t cope with the load.” And I’m like, “Now you tell us.” So people who died in other cities will be certificated in this other city and with or without a riot death, and we won’t get all those. So, that explains why we have no women, no children, and no old people.
Laura: I guess they were likely transported?
Phoebe: Or they died or were recovered during the marshall law period and are buried in a traditional pit mass grave. I think it’s both of those circumstances, because we found 1 woman who had died in another city, but I’ll be a lot of the women, children, and old people were collected during those days of marshall law.
Laura: This must be so much to take in. I know you started with some of the social dynamics and the fight and wanting to rebuild or not wanting to rebuild in a shadow of violence. There’s so much to the story and I feel that we’re fortunate to have so many people talking about different aspects of it. It’s remarkable to hear about. For your part, the skeletal. Let’s talk about it. You talked about some of the teeth, which I’d never heard about, which is very interesting. What are some of the pieces that you’ve done so far or that you expect to do as you go forward?
Phoebe: Well, in one sense, I think this current round will be less interesting, because we really are only going after people in plain caskets. And I say people, but in this first round, only men were in plain caskets. All the women had nice caskets, so I don’t think we’ll get any women. The preservation of these remains that we see after 100 years is that we can often just barely get the part called the girdle that is a real strong indicator of sex, so we’re headed towards probably everyone will be male, just because of the plain casket. So, that takes care of some of what is interesting. I thought I’d see more healed fractures, because they were black people. Don’t they have hard lives? Aren’t they working hard? What we saw was not healed fractures, but women with arms like men, because they were washer women. So, there deltoid attachment was just robust. So, wow! We’re just phoning it in on the activity level, but these women had some robust arms, so again, we’ll be sorting them out, because plain casket, but those features… I was surprised about the lack of healed fractures. We had one gentleman that had a healed jaw fracture, but that was from a previous gunshot wound, so he survived that, but he also had 1 or 2 gold teeth, and I thought, “oh, that’s probably holding together what few teeth he had left on that side because of the bullet wound.” So, you know, dental care at that time, was oddly common. We didn’t expect that. I did see it in a newspaper article where a writer was complaining about, “we don’t need to go to the Yukon. We’re throwing all these gold teeth in the cemetery.” And that was before we opened and I just clipped it and went on. Now I see, oh yeah, how many teeth do we have gold teeth on? 3? So, yeah, it was a thing. After last season, it was, I’m going to get a gold tooth, and then no you’re not. No, you’re not. But come on this tooth? No. So, it has cleared faded from style so no gold teeth.
Because no women, we probably won’t see any infants this time either, because women who died in childbirth or whose infants died were buried with the women. So, we won’t get that.
This phase of excavation is targeting plain casketed males, because we know we’re zeroing in on their location. We have a lot of ground to cover, because section 20 is a large area of the cemetery, but we only have a few weeks here and then a next set of few weeks and then we have to be safe, because if you dig too large a hole into areas that we dug last year, the previous year’s soil could be unstable. So, we have to make sure that everyone’s safe hand digging in there, but they are buried very, very deeply, so we’ve been spared one risk, but some of the skeletal features that I thought we’d see, no.
I was really expecting to see healed femoral fractures, because that’s a mighty bone. I thought surely we’d see that, because this is the world of “you just have to get better and go back to work.” But, so far, rib fractures are out, because the preservation just isn’t good enough. But, arms, legs, we get those whole shafts. They show up well, but nothing.
Laura: Wow. Yeah, it must be surprising, but also amazing what you can see, like the level of work being done by the women. Robust, exactly. I know you have so much work yet to do, but then how do you target the next excavation? Are there pieces that you’re learning about now that will help with that?
Phoebe: Skeletally, we are trying to preserve as much of either… So, what happens is we expose the remains, but the preservation is like the clock starts ticking. So, we’re taking more images of the remains as they’re exposed, because this part of the skull, we often can see it’s there, but then by the time we lift the remains up, this part’s attached and this part’s attached, but nothing in between, because it’s very fragile. So the maxilla that touches the nasal… I’m sure it was there when we first started.
I had that experience when we first started working on burial 1 watching it collapse as we were trying to clean it up. So, were going to try to capture images for parts that probably won’t make it into the lab so that we can reconstruct more than just this durable outer bulb. So, that’s probably the main difference in this part of the investigation compared to the summer one. More images.
We did often get enough data from the skeleton to go, “Yeah, it’s a guy or it’s a woman. They’re mostly black or not or we can’t tell at all.” So preservation is in our favor, but we could use a little more technology.
Laura: Yeah, really that was going to be my next question. What missing elements are making it challenging and how do you work around that? It sounds like it takes a lot more work. You really need the history and the death certificates and everything that surrounds it to fill in the pieces.
Phoebe: It will be difficult to match these individuals to these death certificates because we’re talking about men in a class, because there are no women, and they’re all men around an age group. You know? 30s, 40s, and that’s still the same person again and again. So, matching them to these generic ages on the death certificates? We’re really relying ultimately, if we can get them above ground and demonstrate that they had trauma… Like one of our gentlemen last summer died of metastatic disease, so he lived and died. Identifying that, we were able to identify that with his skeleton, because the disease showed up on his x-rays, but we won’t be able to identify him, because there’s no medical records and he’s a problematic DNA case too.
Laura: It’s amazing how the bodies tell so many stories in addition to the other side that you’re getting. But, certainly Tulsa isn’t the only area with victims of racial violence. Do they rely on mass graves or, and this is an opinion question, how could they affect other places nationally?
Phoebe: I hope that other cities or towns will be inspired to try to find, because especially if they already have a narrative of buried here or the individuals are buried here, I’m hoping they’ll look at our process (the best parts of it) and say, “Ok, who are the local stakeholders? Who living here is related to these remains or these people that we’re looking for and who are their friends? Do we have political help in whatever our population is? Can we fund this search? Can we get a team together?” Who’s on the team? You’re going to need archaeologists. Depending on your time frame, you may need a forensic anthropologist for the trauma, and you may need a historian depending on where you’re getting your knowledge on where the burial is or how the person ended up dead? When you hear about some of the lynchings and the amount of damage done to the remains, I get a picture of there may be some signs of sharp force, but mostly signs of blunt force, or gunshot wounds, but there probably won’t be any hands or feet, because they’ll probably have been souvenired off. So, if we find an individual like that, we go, “Ok, that’s most likely your person.” So, situations like that can be, on a teamwork basis, researched, but there has to be someone who will go, “Hey, my great-great uncle was killed in this way. We know he’s buried somewhere in there.” Or even knowing exactly where, but to pursue it, someone has to have the personal urge to pursue it. This investigation isn’t the kind of investigation you do externally. It’s too old and I’m thinking, and I’m still working on this thought, but I’m thinking for any moment like this, the people affected need to say, “Fix this. Do something.” Not have the state or external agency do something. And that’s how we operated with the Race Massacre investigation. This wasn’t just something that Mayor Bynum said, “Let’s fix this.” This was Mayor Bynum going, “Oh, yeah, people are still asking about it. Let’s fix it.”
Laura: Agreed. I do think you need that movement on the ground and I hope in other areas, maybe you can secure the national press to maybe put a little pressure on the politicians involved and get something moving.
Phoebe: I hear little things. The other day, NPR was saying how Spain is going to look up the people that were killed by Franco. Really?! I didn’t think that was ever going to happen. Or the Indian boarding schools. There’s probably not a single one that doesn’t have a cemetery. Probably other boarding schools too, but let’s not think about that too closely right now. But, state hospitals, boarding schools, hospitals to the insane, you know, just add labels. Did you read The Immortal Souls by Henrietta Lacks?
Laura: Yes, one of my favorite books?
Phoebe: And how the author found the pictures of the daughter that had died there?
Laura: That’s a powerful book.
Phoebe: And part of it’s power is the timeliness of it. The records are still there. I wonder if the records still exist now after a book. When I worked in North Dakota, I started a body donation program there, and I was working with the anatomy department and just as a point of history, we had a medical program of some kind since near the origins of the university in the 1800’s and they would dissect people, men usually, who had died anonymously who came in on the riverboat trade. There was a riverboat trade on the Red River then. So, if no one claimed them right away, and of course, no one’s going to if you’re a boat hand who recently died, they would dissect them. But they would take pictures of them in case someone wanted to claim them later. In the modern era, in the 1990’s or even in the 2000’s, they found the collection of pictures and destroyed them. They said some of them were inappropriate, so they destroyed them. And I thought, “There goes hope of ever being IDed then.” So, that kind of practice when you see the information might get out somewhere and they do a pre-emptive destruction, that can effect other searches, but I do like that one of our tools at the end of the day is maybe DNA analysis, but that still gets us to, well are their family members with profiles that can be traced back to these people? Because we have one of the larger family tree efforts for this kind of search compared to a forensic one, where you’re only looking for their parents or siblings, so sometimes just whether they have a profile source on there. But, for the Tulsa Race Massacre, we’re looking at 3rd or 4th cousins, so getting the word out that we’re having successful profiles or getting family names, I think that will encourage other families to come forward eventually to say, “This happened to us too. And we know where or we think we know where our loved one was buried. Can we get justice or at least acknowledgement to get them back?” But it’s going to be a multi-year process to get to that stage, because there are no guarantees that we can get them identified. We can find them, but their families don’t have to be interested.
Laura: I hope you do. I hope the attention being shined on it does bring people forward to help move the efforts quickly. It’s very exciting to hear about. Feels like some change and movement after a very, very long time.
Phoebe: Tulsa has been doing very well. There are political issues. Factions have risen, but we are going forward nay the less. The city backs it with city funding. The current actors put aside a million dollars for the excavation, and that was more money that we had. A real line in the budget for excavation opposed to the previous efforts which was using leftover money. So that’s a serious commitment. I just hope that when we get our individuals found, even just the ones who are contributing by having been exhumed at the same time, that the impact will affect people still local in Tulsa so that they can go, “Ah, I got my family member back.”
Laura: Yeah, that’s a meaningful commitment and then educates the next generation and continues moving that forward.
Phoebe: And in one sense, we’ll recover a little bit of that cemetery.
Phoebe: It’s so unmarked in places. Some of that is just economic. You know how that is. When you can’t afford a headstone, you just can’t afford it. The buried headstones make it interesting.
Laura: Yes, sounds like a fascinating project. Complex, but with implications that are wide ranging for a lot of different people. You know, starting to unpack a little, you mentioned body donation. So you’re involved in a body donation program? Do I have that right?
Phoebe: I started one for the Pound Lab. It had an informal one. Every now and then the family would donate remains of someone that they lost in a forensic context, but it wasn’t formalized in the sense that, “Hey I consent to how you use the remains,” and I needed people to be able to consent to not just that we might have the skeleton, but that we might destroy it in testing and research or we might take pictures of them. Not the flesh remains, but the skeleton. While you won’t recognize them unless there’s a gold tooth or something observable in life, but I want the families to consent or the donor to consent and know upfront that yes, the remains could be used in imaging or destructive testing, or they could no consent, you know. The only thing they have to consent to is donation and if they say don’t take images, we don’t take images.
Laura: And I assume it helps move the research forward?
Phoebe: It does. Some of our work with the Tulsa remains involves 3-D modeling. Trying to get this gap right here and how can we reconstruct that gap virtually? While we’re still in the early days of figuring out can we do that? Taking the static photos will help us out. I hope one day it’ll speak to the moralization if we get IDs, I hope. But working with the donors, we can perfect our skill. We’ve gotten very good at scanning non-humans, so we’re ramping up. We have some donors now and they’ve consented to being imaged or photographed or 3-D modeled, but we’re also, in effect, shaping what does it mean to 3-D model someone? Some person’s skeleton, because if you publish that model, it’s Halloween. You go, oh I recognize that skull, because that’s where when you disseminate 3-D models, you lose control. That’s a big issue in anatomy. What does it mean to share any of the images? And I come from a long history of you go to the meetings and everybody is showing their favorite case and it’s anonymized, unless it’s not with historic murders and you see the victim again and again in books. Is that appropriate? Sentiments change. It was appropriate then, but is it appropriate now and will it be appropriate in 30 years when it’s the print out of a scanned skull? Well, for most skulls, they’re still anonymous, but if facial reconstruction somehow improves to the point were I can see the person? The reconstructions never hit it for me, but what if the reconstructions do hit that point? What if we reconstruct that and somebody goes, “There’s uncle Fred.” It was supposed to be anonymous, but is it? You donated. So, we have to get to that concept of privacy or not privacy.
Laura: Ethical and privacy concerns are always part of the discussion it feels like in the 12 years that I’ve been talking to people in this field. And it does evolve over time and standards do evolve over time as the technology changes.
Phoebe: It would be nice to keep it at give consent or not. So, even though these are decedents. And there is some discussion over, you know, you can’t harm dead people, and I’m like, “That’s true. They’re dead. But you might be able to harm their family through them, and that’s the part I’m trying to avoid. We as a discipline and how forensic anthropology contributes. I have the luxury of being in one of the few states that says you can’t use these forensic cases for research. You can’t conduct forensic research on them while you have them and you can’t share their pictures because the Dale Earnhardt Law. I’m like, “Ok, I can work with this, because it creates this concept of let the donor consent instead of being used.” Which is very handy, even though I didn’t know the history of using black bodies in anatomy. I didn’t know about that until much later. I didn’t know that was a thing. But now we just use bodies without preference, but we’re not grave robbing. We’re not stealing them. We’re not dissecting them. Well, it probably depends on which state you’re in. You could probably still get dissected if you’re not claimed in time, but state by state. Generally, we may not be doing that as much anymore, so we have this idea that oh we could treat dead people a little better so I look at my work at UF and how the Race Massacre is proceeding and we’re being careful to keep images of the remains out of the media and have the community members assigned being able to escort the remains to the lab. It’s really important to me that the community be able to reconnect with these people that have been anonymized. Their final identity stolen away. We’re putting a little bit of it back with this idea of respect too for the dead as a way of preserving their identity. That’s just something that I will continue to develop.
Laura: I think we’re really lucky to have such a thoughtful discussion on that here. And I’m glad we got into that piece of it as well in addition to the work that you’ve been doing. Is there anything you want to touch on to make sure that we share?
Phoebe: At least for the Race Massacre investigation, we’re still in progress. The summer of 2021 excavation, we recovered 14 adults that we looked at. 6 men and 8 women. And that process only yielded, I just emphasize this, we excavated multiple adults because we didn’t know what we were going to find in there, and knowing what we know now about the preservation, all the things that we learned last summer, has shaped how we’re pursuing this investigation. And will probably continue to shape it unless we find a bunch of them, and I doubt that will happen, because the Sexton couldn’t seem to bury people who died in the same week next to each other (at least in the other Potter’s Field). I don’t know what he would have said about the Colored one, but we might find 3 together or 4 together. I just doubt we’ll see 10 in that context. I foresee more work. But, at the end of the day, we have both preservation and persistence in our favor, so if we keep digging, we’ll find them.
Laura: That is a beautiful way to put it. Preservation and persistence.
Phoebe: I was worried that they would just be pancakes. We did not know what we were going to find. I’ve seen worse preservation, because bones in Florida…
Laura: I can imagine depending on where. Have you attended ISHI before?
Phoebe: No, no. It’s my first, and because of the timing, I thought, I’m here, then I’ll speak and I’ll leave tomorrow.
Laura: Welcome. We’re so lucky to have you and we so appreciate your work.
Phoebe: I appreciate your interest in our investigation. We are remaking history. Literally, any time like these with interviews and how they’re distributed, we get to undo the discard of the cemetery records. I’m not trying to change the history from them or the cumulated issues contributing to now, but hopefully they’re won’t be any… Well, clearly we just make anything up as we go nowadays, but I look at all these moments as contributing to re-establishing that this moment happened. It was bad, but we’ve taken responsibility for it as we can today.
Laura: You’re reaching a big audience that’s very involved. Very exciting for that.
Phoebe: I’m looking forward to the presentations tomorrow, because I want to hear about the DNA. I’m really looking forward to hearing Alison’s presentation, because we talk a lot and what part will she say. Hope she tells that part that I keep going, “I’m not going to share that.” I hope that she will. Danny’s part, I’m hoping maybe we’ve got family names now. I’m thinking there will be many based on the genealogy. I gave my DNA to 23andMe. I doesn’t yield family hits for me. They’re all 3rd and 4th cousins and as Alison’s told me now, Ancestry’s really better or you could try this other one, but for African Americans looking for family, most go to Ancestry or this other one that I can’t remember the name of. My twin sister, we’re homozygotic twins, and she went with Ancestry, so there are cousins, the cousins that are related to Anna Woods. They’re still in Mississippi. There they are. They show up.
Laura: Maybe I’m going to have to try a few others and see what it looks like. Thank you so much. I hope you can come back again and join us. This is wonderful. Thanks Phoebe.
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