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Tulsa Race Massacre investigators say they've sequenced DNA from 6 possible victims

A mural marking Black Wall Street, also called the Greenwood District, in Tulsa, Okla. The Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 devastated Black Wall Street and claimed some 300 African American lives.
Win McNamee
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A mural marking Black Wall Street, also called the Greenwood District, in Tulsa, Okla. The Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 devastated Black Wall Street and claimed some 300 African American lives.

A team of researchers hoping to identify victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre said Wednesday they had completed DNA sequencing of six sets of human remains exhumed from the city's Oaklawn Cemetery, where bodies of Black residents killed in the violence are thought to have been buried.

Speaking at a news conference in Tulsa, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced what he described as a "major scientific breakthrough."

"We do not believe a match of this type has ever been achieved before in American history," the mayor said.

Bynum said 22 sets of remains had been exhumed from the cemetery so far, but that experts are not yet sure if any of them were massacre victims. However, the DNA results could allow researchers to make a match with possible living relatives.

The 1921 Tulsa massacre left upward of 300 African Americans dead and resulted in the destruction of "Black Wall Street" in the city's prosperous Greenwood enclave. Although the history of the two days of violence that began on May 31, 1921, was long unknown outside the city, in recent years Tulsa has engaged in a reckoning over the events. In 2020, the city began excavating at the Oaklawn Cemetery in hopes of locating and identifying remains of victims.

"There isn't a single genealogical investigation of this magnitude in the United States that has gotten this far, and yet, we are still in the beginning stages of this process," Bynum said. "There is a lot more investigative work that is happening, and with the public's help, we are eager to enter the next phase of this process."

For the six sets of remains that were examined, the research team has identified surnames of interest for potential relatives in Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. If a member of the public sees their surname flagged and has a family history in Tulsa, they are being asked to contact the team at Tulsa1921DNA.org.

Alison Wilde, the genealogy case manager for the 1921 Tulsa Project, says anyone who shares the surnames in question and lives in or has historical ties to the designated areas may be able to help. They can upload their own DNA tests to GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA so researchers can examine them for a possible match.

"You may have taken a test at ancestry.com or 23andMe or MyHeritage," she said, referring to popular DNA testing and genealogy websites. "[But] if you want your DNA compared to the unidentified human remains in this project then those tests need to be uploaded or transferred."

Using the DNA information from the public, the team hopes to draw up a list of possible matches.

"How easy or how challenging the identification is going to be depends on the people on that list," Wilde said.

It would be easiest if the team can discover a "direct descendant who will share an obvious and significant amount of DNA." But it's also possible that the list would be "comprised of very, very distant DNA relatives — so distant in time that we may never be able to tie them together," she said.

Danny Hellwig, the director of laboratory development for Intermountain Forensics, the Salt Lake City-based lab that sequenced the DNA, vowed that Intermountain and the rest of the team "will continue to leave no stone unturned in this investigation for truth and justice."

"This is just the beginning of what we hope will be a long and and fulfilled process of investigating these results, using the most cutting-edge DNA technologies available," Hellwig said.

In November, the Tulsa World newspaper reported that a total of 66 burials had been unearthed at the Oaklawn Cemetery, all but four of which were unmarked. It is believed that many victims of the massacre were buried in unmarked graves, but their locations were never recorded.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.