Racial massacre: team suggests more study for possible grave

A suspected burial ground where the victims of an 1887 racial massacre may have been dumped should be studied further, a scientific team suggests.

Researchers who used ground-penetrating radar and limited soil samples in May were to present their report Wednesday evening to Thibodaux residents.

Many locals believe white mobs buried the bodies of 30 to 60 African-Americans killed during a Reconstruction era rampage on land that was later a city dump and now holds an American Legion hall and houses.

Sugar workers were striking for a raise and payment in money rather than plantation chits when white mobs broke the strike on Nov. 23, 1887, by going door-to-door for more than two hours shooting unarmed blacks, according to a book by journalist John DeSantis.

The big problem is that nobody knows which part of the land might have been used to dump bodies, said DeSantis, who helped form a committee of the victims' descendants and others.

Ground-penetrating radar and coring did not find clear evidence of burials but did find what could be a steep-sided pit, which might have been dug for the dump, an oil well or other reasons, according to a copy of the report which DeSantis provided to The Associated Press.

"While this is not evidence of a mass burial, it is consistent with the silencing of a violent and loathsome event in Louisiana history," the report says.

The report was written by Mark Rees of the Louisiana Public Archaeology Lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; Cynthia Ebinger and Ryan Gallacher of Tulane University's department of earth and environmental sciences; and Tulane anthropology graduate student Davette N. Gadison, who led the team and was to present the findings at a public meeting Wednesday night.

It suggests expanding the study to the unbuilt areas of the former dump, noting that homes and the American Legion hall prevent study of much of the area.

But before any more fieldwork begins, it said, much more research should be done in archives and by talking to area residents.

"A multi-institutional program, involving students, scholars and investigators from Louisiana universities and high schools would enhance the educational aspects of this research and provide expanded learning opportunities. It would also increase community engagement and public outreach involving a long-silenced historical event with contemporary social relevance," the report said.

Fieldwork should include more remote sensing, such as ground-penetrating radar, and backhoe work to excavate test trenches, after notifying local, state and federal officials that the area may hold a mass grave, the report states.

A backhoe would be needed because the southern part of the field holds a deep layer of "debris-laden fill" that would make shovel work "extremely laborious, inefficient and ineffective in locating burials," the report said.

"Due to the possibility of encountering human remains, excavations should be preceded by consultations with descendants and community members, as well as an application for an Unmarked Burials Permit, in accordance with the Louisiana Unmarked Human Burial Sites Preservation Act," it said.

It also noted that even if a mass grave was once on that land, it might not be found. The buildings aren't the only problem: damp soil, microbial decay and other natural processes may have deteriorated bones, it said.

"The environmental hazards of working in a landfill must also be taken into account with appropriate worker health and safety precautions," it said.