Reports from Herald Columnist Jim Clingman, NPR, Tulsa Historical Society and Wikipedia contributed to this article
Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, told a congressional hearing last week: “I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”
The day that a White mob came to Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Viola Fletcher was just 7 years old.
At the time, the African American community was a prosperous, independent neighborhood. It was one of the wealthiest, educated African American communities in the country and was known as the “Black Wall Street.”
It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.”
The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district. More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, and as many as 6,000 Black residents were interned in large facilities. The bodies of Greenwood victims were thrown in the river of mass graves. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 White, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records. The commission gave several estimates ranging from 75 to 300 dead.
The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. After the arrest, rumors spread through the city that Rowland was to be lynched.
Upon hearing reports that a mob of hundreds of White men had gathered around the jail where Rowland was being kept on the top floor, a group of 75 Black men, some of whom were armed, arrived at the jail to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched. The sheriff persuaded the group to leave the jail, assuring them that he had the situation under control.
As the group was leaving, a member of the mob of White men allegedly attempted to disarm one of the Black men. A shot was fired, and then according to the reports of the sheriff, “all hell broke loose.” At the end of the firefight, 12 people were killed: 10 White and two Black.
As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded. White rioters rampaged through the Black neighborhood that night and morning killing men and burning and looting stores and homes. Around noon on June 1, the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law, effectively ending the massacre.
About 10,000 Black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019).
Many survivors left Tulsa, while Black and White residents who stayed in the city kept silent about the terror, violence and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state and national histories.
During emotional testimony on Capitol Hill, Fletcher, who is now 107, recalled her memories of the two-day massacre that left hundreds of Black people dead.
“I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams,” Fletcher told lawmakers. “I have lived through the massacre every day.”
Fletcher and two other survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, her younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, testified before a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Wednesday, May 19, nearly 100 years to the date of the massacre.
Some historians say as many as 300 Black people were killed and another 10,000 were left homeless. Greenwood was destroyed by the attack that was launched on May 31, 1921.
The country is currently grappling with systemic racism laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and the killings of George Floyd and other Black people in encounters with law enforcement. The same committee that heard from the survivors has also been studying reparations for the descendants of millions of enslaved Americans and recently advanced a bill that would create a commission to study the lingering effects of slavery.
Fletcher and other survivors are calling for justice.
“I am 107 years old and I have never … seen justice. I pray that one day I will,” she said. “I have been blessed with a long life and have seen the best and the worst of this country. I think about the terror inflicted upon Black people in this country every day.”
Survivors of the massacre are plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit filed last year. The lawsuit argues that the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa are responsible for what happened during the massacre.
Van Ellis described the multiple unsuccessful attempts by survivors and their descendants to seek justice through the courts. “You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you would go to the courts to be made whole. That wasn’t the case for us.” he said.
“We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice, that we were less than the Whites, that we weren’t fully Americans,” testified Van Ellis, who is a World War II veteran and wore a U.S. Army hat at the hearing. “We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under the law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.”
He called for the remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre to be acknowledged while they are still living.
“Please, do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors,” he said, as he finished reading from prepared remarks.
Each of the survivors raised the question of what Greenwood could have been today.
“Even at the age of 100, the Tulsa Race Massacre is a footnote in the history books of us. We live it every day, and the thought of what Greenwood was or what it could have been,” Ellis said.
Lessie Benningfield Randall, who testified over video conference, said the effects of the massacre are still felt today in Tulsa.
“My opportunities were taken from me and my community. Black Tulsa is still messed up today. They didn’t rebuild it. It’s empty, it’s a ghetto,” Randall, who is now 106, said.
Randall said she not only survived the massacre, but she has also now survived “100 years of painful memories.
“By the grace of God, I am still here. I have survived to tell this story,” she said. “Hopefully, now you will all listen to us while we are still here.”