The process of re-exhuming of some of the 19 bodies exhumed a year ago for testing in an effort to identify victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, then reburied in an Oklahoma cemetery, began Wednesday to gather more DNA from the remains.
The latest exhumations of bodies that were taken from Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, will be followed by another excavation for additional remains.
Of the 19 bodies previously exhumed, 14 fit the criteria for additional DNA analysis, but just two of the 14 had enough usable DNA recovered to begin sequencing by Intermountain Forensics of Salt Lake City.
Danny Hellwig, director of laboratory development for Intermountain, said Wednesday that the DNA recovered from the remains had degraded during the more than 100 years they were buried.
“These samples are very … degraded,” Hellwig said. “There are samples that are very light right now on DNA, some that are semi viable, some that are just on the threshold” of being viable.”
Hellwig said work to develop a genealogy profile for the two remains with enough viable DNA is expected to start in about a week and couple be completed within a few weeks, but efforts to identify the remains could take years.
Intermountain Forensics is also seeking people who believe they are descendants of massacre victims to provide genetic material to help scientists find potential matches.
Following the exhumations, another search will begin for 18 bodies with gunshot wounds whose burials in plain caskets were documented at the time, but without information where within the cemetery, according to forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield.
“We will be targeting in our excavations plain casketed individuals” who are male, based on the contemporary reports, Stubblefield said.
The remains will be reburied, at least temporarily, at Oaklawn, where the previous reburial was closed to the public, drawing protests from about two dozen people who said they are descendants of massacre victims and should have been allowed to attend.
None of the remains recovered thus far are identified or confirmed as victims of the massacre in which more than 1,000 homes were burned, hundreds were looted and a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street was destroyed. Historians have estimated the death toll to be between 75 and 300.
Victims were never compensated, however a pending lawsuit seeks reparations for the three remaining known survivors of the violence.
The latest search is expected to end by Nov. 18.