Intermountain Forensics Lab, a nonprofit DNA testing laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, is using cutting-edge techniques to identify bodies thought to be associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, OK, a mission that lab director Danny Hellwig, MS, calls a “historic opportunity for our laboratory to provide some clarity and peace to families and communities impacted by these horrific events.”
In the early morning of June 1, 1921, White rioters burned and looted the Greenwood district of Tulsa, an affluent African American community sometimes referred to as “Black Wall Street.” According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the riots began after Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, was unjustly accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old White elevator operator in the nearby Drexel Building. Hundreds of people were injured or killed during the riots, which destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood. While the official count of those dead was recorded as 36, historians estimate that the number could be as high as 300. The event is considered to be one of the single worst incidents of racial violence in American history.
In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorized the formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission recommended payment of various forms of reparations and the creation of a memorial to the massacre’s victims, according to a report by the Harvard Business School. On June 1, 2001, exactly 80 years after the massacre, Oklahoma state legislators passed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act, which called for the building of a memorial, incentives for investment in Greenwood, and the creation of scholarships to low-income Tulsans.
Filling gaps in Tulsa's history
In 2018, the City of Tulsa announced that it would reexamine graves possibly associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in an effort to further heal the city. “The only way to move forward in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is by seeking the truth honestly,” said Mayor G.T. Bynum in announcing the initiative, as reported on the City of Tulsa’s website. “As we open this investigation 99 years later, there are both unknowns and truths to uncover. But we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process—filling gaps in our city’s history and providing healing and justice to our community.”
The City of Tulsa and archeology experts completed the first phase of the project—the 1921 Graves Investigation at Oaklawn Cemetery—in August 2021. After exhuming human remains from the cemetery, the City removed femurs and teeth from 14 victims before reburying the bodies. The City then contracted with Intermountain Forensics to help identify those 14 individuals who may have been victims of the massacre.
"Intermountain Forensics is using next-generation sequencing in a variety of different applications to identify the remains."
In the second phase of the project, Intermountain Forensics is using next-generation sequencing in a variety of different applications to identify the remains, explains Hellwig. While the samples are challenging because they have been buried for so long and have degraded, he says that Intermountain is especially suited for dealing with difficult cases. In fact, the lab recently was able to pull DNA from licked envelopes from the late 1800s.
“We like to think of ourselves as the island of misfit cases,” he says. “We use many different kinds of technology and tools to solve these cases.”
Intermountain Forensics also plans to work with some of the top forensic experts in the world on this project. Potential partners include Ed Green from Astrea Forensics, Colleen Fitzpatrick from Identifinders International, CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist for Parabon Nanolabs, and Margaret Press at DNA Doe Project.
The lab will use a Qiagen TissueLyser II, called the “bone crusher,” to pulverize bone and teeth into powder. After that, “it’s choose your own adventure” depending on how much DNA is extracted, says Hellwig. The team of six people will use next-generation sequencing in a variety of different applications on these samples, including myochondrial DNA testing. Developing genetic profiles on these individuals will take one to three months, but matching them up with family members to complete the identification will take much longer.
The genetic profiles will be uploaded to two national DNA databases—GedMatch and Family Tree DNA—where the individuals can be linked with descendants or other family members who have also had DNA testing done—such as through 23andMe or ancestry.com. Confirming links to living family members can take months or even years, but Hellwig says Intermountain is committed to identifying each individual exhumed, however much time it takes and whatever resources are needed.
Transparency and community support
“We will continue the investigation until we reach the end. We will leave no stone unturned.”
“This will need a lot of community involvement,” says Hellwig. “The only way this will work is with transparency and community support.”
While the City of Tulsa is paying for much of the cost of identifying the remains, Hellwig notes that Intermountain Forensics is a nonprofit and will ensure that the work is completed regardless of the cost. Individuals who want to donate to the project can do so at https://givebutter.com/tulsadna.
If people think they may be related to someone who was killed during the Tulsa Race Massacre, Hellwig says they can contact Intermountain Forensics to get information about how to have their DNA tested at email@example.com or 801-904-2230.
Hellwig notes that the City of Tulsa is continuing to exhume additional bodies, so it’s likely there eventually will be more remains identified. “I think of this project as a starting point,” he says. “We will continue the investigation until we reach the end. We will leave no stone unturned.”