A DNA lab in Utah is analyzing human remains found in Oaklawn Cemetery in a search for victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
More than 100 years later, science may soon provide some answers to the mysteries underground.
It was historic when the summer of 2020 saw soil being picked up in the search for victims for the first time since the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre. Now the next historical chapter begins as human remains from unmarked graves found in Oaklawn Cemetery are examined by scientists in a DNA lab.
“Now it will feel like it’s happening. Because now something actionable for the community is coming out,” said Alison Wilde.
Wilde is the Director of Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy at the Utah Cold Case Coalition.
Getting the remains from Tulsa to the DNA lab involved a 1,200-mile FedEx trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains and about 20 minutes from downtown is a humble lab called Intermountain Forensics.
Their job is to compare DNA from teeth and bones found in Oaklawn to people who submit their DNA to determine whether or not the remains in Oaklawn belong to massacre victims.
The lab said a descendant of a victim or survivor, or even someone just curious if they’re a match, can submit their DNA.
“I’m very confident that our lab can pull it off if it’s possible,” said Karra Porter, CEO of Intermountain Forensics.
Porter grew up not far from Tulsa and credits her parents with enlightening her about the massacre. In addition to being the CEO of Intermountain Forensics, she is also a civil rights attorney.
“And that, of course, was the ultimate civil rights violation,” Porter said. “And now we have a chance to help with that. It’s hard to articulate how meaningful this is to me.”
Porter said she put her life savings into the lab. What looks like a copier that belongs in an office is an expensive machine called the NovaSeq 6000.
During our visit, DNA was being sequenced from the remains found in Oaklawn. This machine, combined with the fact that the lab is non-profit, sets it apart from other DNA labs.
Intermountain Forensics said the million-dollar machine is often used in the medical community for things like cancer screening, but it can only be found in a handful of forensic DNA labs across the country.
According to Hellwig, the NovaSeq 6000 is “essentially the most powerful DNA sequencer on the market today.”
“It’s really unique. It is very expensive. But it’s extraordinarily powerful.
Hellwig said aside from the equipment, the lab needs people to get involved.
“There’s just nothing you can do if there’s not a little bit of DNA in some family tree that doesn’t match,” he said. “Second cousin, fifth cousin, great-great-grandparents, whatever. As long as we can find some family genealogy DNA matches in these databases, we should be able to bring the investigation to a successful conclusion.”
Intermountain Forensics said people don’t have to submit DNA to support the work. Wilde is busy collecting pictures, family trees and information from people across the country.
Some want to share their DNA and others just want to share their personal story.
“Even if it’s like, ‘Oh, my grandmother’s brother moved to Tulsa with the oil boom. He was there in the 1920s. No one ever heard from him again.’ There are many stories like that,” she said.
Intermountain Forensics said people can be as private or as open as they want throughout the process.
“We have a wide range of privacy options here,” Porter said. “I mean, I actually sued the state of Utah once for misusing people’s DNA. So I believe in it; As a civil rights attorney, I am a big advocate of privacy.”
If matches are found when comparing DNA, families could soon have some answers about their past.
“As exciting and rewarding as it will be to provide information and bring some names to light, it will reopen and take this family right back to 1921,” Wilde said.
Hellwig emphasized that patience is the key. He points to 9/11 as an example of how long it can take to find DNA matches.
“A year ago I was at a forensic DNA conference and we were still talking about 9/11 and identifying remains from the Trade Center,” he said.
While everyone waits, the story unfolds as science works to uncover the mysteries of who is underground.
“Whether they are victims of race massacres or not, they deserve to have their name returned to them,” Hellwig said. “Your family deserves to know who you are.”
More information about Intermountain Forensics can be found here.