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Tampa archaeologists to search for Tulsa race massacre mass grave

Cardno has found graves from erased Black cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Cardno Archaeologist KC Allen uses a trowel as she explores a grave shaft at Zion Cemetery in Tampa in June  2020.
Cardno Archaeologist KC Allen uses a trowel as she explores a grave shaft at Zion Cemetery in Tampa in June 2020. [ Times (2020) ]
Published Jun. 3
Updated Jun. 3

TAMPA ― For more than two years, archaeologists with the private firm Cardno have searched for and found lost graves — mostly from erased Black cemeteries — throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Now, Tampa-based Cardno’s archaeologists are heading west to help with the search for a mass grave believed to be linked to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre that resulted in the murder of up to 300 Black residents.

“We consider it to be a honor to help to assist the local community and team of experts in this important undertaking,” Paul Jones, project manager for Cardno, said in an email.

Related: 1,200 graves are missing in Tampa. How did they disappear?

A spokesperson for the city of Tulsa said via email that Cardno’s team of eight begins up to eight weeks of work on Monday.

During the era of segregation, Black residents built the thriving community of Greenwood in Tulsa.

In 1921, a jealous white mob descended on Greenwood. They burned more than 1,000 homes, looted hundreds of others and destroyed the business district.

At the time, the state of Oklahoma tabulated the death toll at 36, including 12 whites. But historians believe the total is between 75 and 300, most of whom were Black and buried in unmarked graves.

Last year, based on the location of two known massacre victims buried with headstones in the Black section of the Potters Field of Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, archaeologists identified that area for a possible mass grave for other Black victims.

Archeologists excavated an area near the marked graves and discovered 12 coffins. They believe there could be more than 30 buried in the mass grave.

According to a media release, excavation of the mass grave resumed on Tuesday.

“The excavation work will begin first with heavy machinery to remove the upper few feet of soil that lies over the burials,” the release says. “Experts expect the excavation could take weeks or even months depending on the needs in the field.”

According to Tulsa’s request for proposal, Cardno’s duties will include the excavation, artifact analysis, and mapping and photographing human remains, grave shafts and coffins.

Tulsa’s “Oaklawn Cemetery will serve as a temporary reinterment site,” says the media release, until a permanent burial and memorial location is identified.

In November 2018, Cardno found graves from a Fort Brooke-era cemetery in an area north of Channelside Drive that was being developed as part of the Water Street Tampa Project.

Related: Read the Tampa Bay Times reporting on lost and erased Black cemeteries

Following a Tampa Bay Times investigations into lost and erased Black cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area, Cardno confirmed the existence of Zion Cemetery under a portion of Tampa’s Robles Park Village housing projects and neighboring lots. They also confirmed graves from two Black cemeteries in Clearwater.

Cardno most recently scanned a Tropicana Field parking lot for graves from an early-20th century cemetery. They have not announced their findings.