Local archaeologists who’ve helped uncover graves from at least three erased African American cemeteries across the Tampa Bay area are heading to Tulsa to help the city find graves from the 1921 race massacre that destroyed the African American Greenwood District of the city.
"It certainly is rewarding to be able to assist in projects that are very important not just for the community, but for the nation,” said Paul Jones, senior archaeologist and principal at Cardno, which describes itself as a “global infrastructure, environmental and social development company.”
The City of Tulsa hired Cardno over eight other firms who placed competitive bids to help with grave excavation.
"Cardno really stood out in an interview process specifically for their experience working with African American cemeteries,” said Amy Brown, deputy mayor of Tulsa.
Crews initially began work last fall and found what they believe were 12 graves in the African American section of the potter’s field in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery. Brown said funeral home records and newspaper articles led them there. More work in searching for the graves started up on Tuesday, with Cardno ready to step in and assist.
"Cardno has a fairly long history of handling cemetery projects,” said Jones.
Cardno, along with archaeologists from the University of South Florida, played a major role in detecting graves from three erased African American cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area. They used ground-penetrating radar to detect anomalies in the soil that indicated graves and then dug in the ground to confirm the physical presence of graves.
Their work helped confirm nearly 300 graves from the old Zion Cemetery under the Tampa Housing Authority’s Robles Park Village apartment complex and two neighboring businesses off N. Florida Avenue.
They also worked with the city of Clearwater to find more than 50 graves from the North Greenwood Cemetery underneath the old Curtis Fundamental School property at Holt and Engman. They also detected and at least 70 from the old St. Matthews Baptist Church cemetery underneath the FrankCrum staffing firm property along Missouri Avenue.
Archaeologists say oftentimes the graves are the vestiges of Black cemeteries destroyed for redevelopment.
In the case of the Tulsa race massacre, graves of victims would represent a violent moment in the nation’s history.
"A city has a core responsibility, you know, when a homicide occurs to find out what happened and to bring justice to those who've been wronged,” said Brown. "It's never too late to tell the truth and to take responsibility, accountability for the uncomfortable things that have happened in our past."
The city of Tulsa says the excavation and continued search for mass graves could take months.
Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com. To read more about the search for erased African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to wtsp.com/erased.
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