Utah’s DNA and genealogy expertise tapped to help ID Tulsa Race

Scientists in Utah are part of an effort to identify victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

In 1921, a white mob targeted Black people, burning more than a thousand homes and looting hundreds. Historians think as many as 300 died and some may be buried at Oaklawn Cemetery, Tulsa’s oldest existing cemetery.

Utah’s Intermountain Forensics, located in Salt Lake City, is processing DNA samples from unmarked graves there. The company is the only accredited private lab in the country that does whole genome sequencing for forensic work.

Alison Wilde, the Genealogy Case Manager for the 1921 Tulsa Project, said DNA is crucial to identifying victims.

“The information on who was buried and where they were buried is gone. So in order for families to ever be able to confirm that this is my family member, DNA is the only way that we’re ever going to answer that question.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: Out of the 14 sets of remains sent to Utah, only two have enough DNA for testing. What are the results that you’re waiting for? 

Alison Wilde: The two sets of remains had enough quality and quantity of DNA from the first sets of samples. Those are ready to proceed to whole genome sequencing. The output of whole genome sequencing is a data file. The data file can be compared to other data files of people who have taken DNA tests in order to align DNA relatives. So that’s what I’m waiting for personally. My work begins where the laboratory work ends. Their output is going to be a data file that comes to me. Then my team takes that. We work with the only two authorized public genetic genealogy databases that allow comparison for unidentified human remains.

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PM: You’ve also put a call out to people who think that they might be related to someone who died in the Tulsa massacre.

AW: From the beginning, as soon as Intermountain Forensics was named as the laboratory that would be doing the DNA work, we had people from the community reaching out to us and saying, “Hey, I think my grandmother’s sister was a victim. I think my great-grandfather was a victim.” A lot have already DNA tested and have already put their DNA in the public databases because they’re hoping something will align. Some people have taken a DNA test but don’t know anything at all about these public databases, and so we give them information on how to upload to them so that they can be compared. Other people haven’t DNA tested at all but want to. So for descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre victims, we send them a free DNA test and give them information so they can navigate the process of taking a DNA test and uploading it to these databases.

PM: What does it feel like to work on a project that is so emotional given the nature of how these people died?

AW: Working as genealogists we’re working in the historical records: we’re reading the newspaper accounts of the day, census records, city directories. We kind of see the trajectory of their life and you get involved in their story, you know, and you think, “Oh, this newlywed couple. And they had a baby and they were building a life. And this is where they were working.” And it’s heartbreaking that you already know the outcome — that on May 31 and June 1, 1921, they’re going to be involved at the Tulsa Race Massacre. And then seeing the devastation, even for the survivors.

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PM: What kind of closure are you hoping your work will bring to the families?

AW: That’s a really interesting question because we discussed that a lot as a genealogy team. The end point for us is the beginning point for somebody else. Our goal is that we can identify every single one of those remains, that we can narrow it down to one specific person, that we know their story, that we know who their descendants are. If they didn’t have descendants, we know who their next of kin are and that we can contact them. That information potentially opens a fresh wound in all the families that received this news. And it might go to a family that has been expecting this news and is grateful for this news and wants this news. It might go to a family that over the years the story has been lost and they don’t even know that they’re related to a Tulsa Race Massacre victim. And that’s a lot of information to digest.

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