By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Skeletons and their bones all have stories.
This is the guiding philosophy of University of Florida Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Phoebe R. Stubblefield.
She is one of the scientists who is excavating what is believed to be a mass grave of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The teams were formed by the Tulsa Race Commission to investigate the incident and ensure it is part of Oklahoma’s and national history.
In 1997, the city launched the effort to recover the remains of victims disposed of in mass graves or hastily built gravesites in boxes at other sites.
Dr. Stubblefield is a forensic anthropologist, a research assistant scientist, and interim director of the C. A. Pound Human Identification Lab at the University of Florida.
One of few Blacks in the field, in 2002, she received the doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Florida As an associate professor at the University of North Dakota for 15 years, she directed the Forensic Science Program and created a trace evidence teaching
laboratory. Also, she is a forensic consultant the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Last October, Stubblefield and her team found 18 plain boxes which served as coffins lined up one inch apart in a trench in the Oaklawn Cemetery.
Most had human remains in them. Historians say that at least 300 Black and white people died in the violence that lasted 18 hours from May 31-June 1, 1921.
“There could be more,” said Stubblefield. “We won’t know until we return in June to continue our excavation and begin our forensic studies of the remains.”
Records say 20 or more African Americans were shot and killed during the rampage of white civilians and police
through the Greenwood section of Tulsa.
The incident was ignited when a young white woman accused a Black man of accosting her. Fearing he would be hung, armed Black men converged on the courthouse.
Shots were exchanged between them and the white men who had gathered at the building.
Later that night the violence began and last for 18 hours. Blacks fled the Greenwood areas for wooded areas or other parts of the city for refuge.
Stubblefield said there are rumors that scores of Black bodies were dumped in mass graves or nearby rivers in other sections of Tulsa as the Black businesses and homes were still smoldering.
She said after the massacre took place, when Black families returned to homes ruined by fire and pillaging by whites, the burned bodies of relatives were found.
Also when the rebuilding began, burned and unrecognizable bodies were found in homes and businesses which were destroyed.
Stubblefield said that is when the forensics study of the bodies found in the trench will begin in ernest and she will be looking for causes of death. She will be looking for any bullet entry into the bodies, burns, and other deadly wounds.
She said the state and city did not take time to conduct an investigation of the people who died nor were autopsies and death certificates created.
The bodies in the trench were buried in the potters’ field section of the cemetery in the plain boxes. The city had a contract to provide burials for poor people; some boxes may have been provided due to that arrangement.
One of her current projects in Florida is creating a descendant-focused approach to human skeletal research.
But Stubblefield’s scientific expertise was not the only reason she became involved. She feels her contributions to Tulsa Excavation is a personal and spiritual one.
She did not know about the Tulsa massacre, she said, until 1997.
She was involved in securing a higher degree in anthropology when she was told about the Tulsa Race Riot by Dr. Leslie Rankenfield, who was on the Tulsa Race Commission and knew of her connection to the city.
Stubblefield’s said her parents moved from Tulsa in the late 1950s to Los Angeles, after her father acquired his degree from the University of Michigan.
“They told me nothing about the riot,” said Stubblefield. “It is my parents’ hometown. They would pack us in the car and visit Tulsa during the summer and we’d meet our cousins and their old friends. I can remember the summer picnics.”
Dr. Stubblefield said that after her colleague told her about that riot, “I immediately called my mother to ask her about the history.”
Stubblefield was told that about her great Aunt Anne and her husband Ellis Wood. They lost their homes during the Tulsa destruction. “That was the only thing my mother told me at that time,” she said.
Stubblefield said that Ellis Wood was part of the team of Black leaders led by lawyer D.C. Franklin, (father of John Hope Franklin) who worked to rebuild Greenwood, despite resistance from the city.
The city sought to pass building codes that deterred Blacks from rebuilding and Attorney Franklin and Mr. Wood fought them.
Wood was the Principal of the Booker T. Washington High School In Tulsa at the time of the massacre.
When the Frazier Hospital which served the Black community was burned down, the school was used as a hospital and refuge for Black residents burned out of their homes.
Ellis Wood died at some time during the 1940s, Stubblefield said.
Stubblefield said she has seen old pictures of Anne Woods, cutting a ribbon at the newest version of the Booker T. Washington High School.
Stubblefield planned to attend the commemorative events in Tulsa from May 30 to mark the 100 years since the devastation.
“When I had time, last October I drove around looking for my uncle’s store where we would have our holiday parties and drink up his soda,” she said. “I could not find it. But I did see a picture from the historical society and there it was. It brought back sweet memories”
Stubblefield said when the forensics studies of the remains in the trench begin, several tools will be used, including DNA tracing.
She said that people living today, who were biologically connected to a victim of the 1921 violence, would be five generations apart.
But DNA from teeth, cranial remains and bones will reveal much.
“This is why I say skeletons tell a story,” said Stubblefield, who is 52. “I have not experienced emotional trauma since during my career studying how people died and lived. I do not have the emotional attachment that many descendants of the victims have in Tulsa”
“But I do appreciate and feel special as an African American in my field to be part of this excavation of such a brutal time in history,” she said.
“I look forward to allowing the bones of those people interred in that trench to tell their story. To give some connection and closure to the people who are alive today.”