GRAND FORKS — Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist who taught at the University of North Dakota from 2003 to 2018, was among those featured in a recent CBS “60 Minutes” segment for her work in the investigation of a possible unmarked burial site of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
For nearly a century, the story of the loss of life and destruction of homes and businesses in a prosperous neighborhood, known as “Black Wall Street,” was largely erased — even many who grew up in Tulsa, Okla., are unaware of it — until recent events brought racial injustices to the forefront of the public consciousness.
The massacre is considered to be one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Official death records at the time accounted for 36 people killed in the riots, though experts have long believed that the number could be in the hundreds.
Stubblefield is remembered in Grand Forks for her work in identifying human remains that were unearthed near the UND president’s home in 2007 during a construction project.
In connection with the Tulsa Race Massacre, Stubblefield has worked with historians and researchers who identified a portion of Oaklawn Cemetery, a “Black paupers burial area,” in Tulsa that hasn’t been used since 1921, she said.
The site has been surveyed with ground-penetrating radar, and the results lead them to believe that victims of the attack may be buried there.
“We hope it’s a grave site,” Stubblefield, a University of Florida research assistant scientist who specializes in forensic analysis and the study of body and skeletal remains, said in a recent phone interview.
“In that survey, they found a large feature altered by humans — as opposed to any other source — and not a utility site, not from pipes being laid or anything like that,” she said. “It’s interesting to us because it’s unmarked and it’s large and it’s in the Black paupers part of the cemetery in that large expanse undisturbed since 1921.”
The researchers’ long-term goal “is to have everyone laid in an unmarked burial, everyone who died related to the massacre, to have their burial be marked and not be this unknown expanse,” she said.
Stubblefield and her colleagues hope to travel to the cemetery this month “and excavate that portion as a text excavation,” she said. “So that means if we find human remains, we won’t take them out of the ground; we’ll only expose them enough to figure out the context of why they’re there.”
They want to determine if the remains are the result of the massacre, “or other events or a mass burial for people who died from the Spanish flu earlier, you know, before 1921,” Stubblefield said. “Cemeteries sometimes have mass graves for other reasons. So we’re really hopeful that they are people who died from the massacre.”
The remains will stay in place “until we have a formal plan for interment,” Stubblefield said.
How it started
The tragedy, sometimes called the Tulsa Race Riots, began in May 1921 when a Black teenager was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. He was arrested and jailed May 31, and an angry mob of armed white men demanded that the sheriff release him to them, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
About 25 Black men who arrived and offered to guard the prisoner were turned away by the sheriff. Later that evening, fearing the teen would be lynched, a group of 75 African-American men came to the courthouse and were confronted by about 1,500 white men.
After tensions rose and shots were fired, the outnumbered group of Black men retreated to the segregated Greenwood District, which included “Black Wall Street,” where rioting and violence continued the next day.
The melee escalated into looting and burning of homes and businesses throughout an area of 35 city blocks. In addition to 36 accounted-for deaths, more than 800 were treated for injuries. The governor declared martial law and brought in the National Guard.
As a faculty member at UND, Stubblefield directed the Forensic Science Program, created a trace evidence teaching laboratory and assisted undergraduate students with entry into the spectrum of forensic science careers.
She provided consulting services for the North Dakota State Historical Society, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office and the Grand Forks County Coroner’s Office.
When a construction crew unearthed human remains not far from the UND president’s home on campus in 2007, Stubblefield’s work revealed that the remains were those of a female of African descent and was likely a cadaver used for anatomy studies by the university’s medical students.
“It was not uncommon for cadavers to be transported from the South,” she said. “Slaveowners sold dead slaves to universities,” which, if they had an excessive supply, would sell them to other universities for medical education.
In the “60 Minutes” episode on the massacre, longtime Tulsa-area residents said they — and their older family members — had never heard of it.
“It wasn’t taught,” Stubblefield said, “and knowledge of it was suppressed — it was systematic.” On microfilmed images of the Tulsa newspaper from that time, “the front headline is torn off,” she said. “Moments like that, they’re not proud ones.”
Some who did know the story apparently kept silent.
“My parents grew up in Tulsa,” Stubblefield said, “and they did not speak of the riot until I talked about my involvement. One of my great-aunts lost her house (in the attack).
“There’s a generational habit of not talking about bad things.”
Stubblefield’s work on this project started with site visits 20 years ago, when she was a graduate student at the University of Florida. She and her colleagues were tasked by the statewide Tulsa Riots Commission to prepare historical documents and look for likely burial sites.
“We didn’t make any progress in that time,” said Stubblefield, adding that Oklahoma did not want to acknowledge that this event happened. “Twenty years ago, the commission did not want to release the report. Truth is difficult.”
She praised the efforts of Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum for initiating an investigation into rumored mass graves in October 2018 and his commitment to the project.
“We have come really far in this one year, compared to 20 years ago,” she said. “We have made tremendous progress. We never even got close to an excavation plan 20 years ago — I mean, not even close.”
Stubblefield and her colleagues are awaiting approval to travel to Tulsa to conduct the test excavation, which has been delayed due to COVID-19.
For her part, the mission is more than professional; it’s personal.
“This is work that connects to me,” said Stubblefield, who is Black. “That doesn’t happen often.”