At age 107, Viola Fletcher has seen plenty of life, but she’d never traveled to the nation’s capital. Recently, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre appeared before members of Congress seeking long overdue justice for her people and community.
“I’m here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921,” she said.
Her testimony came during the “Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre” hearing on May 19. The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties examined the 1921 Massacre and potential remedies for survivors and their descendants.
This year marks the centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre. The late historian John Hope Franklin has described the historic event as a “firestorm of hatred and violence that is perhaps unequaled in the peacetime history of the United States.”
Late in the evening of May 31, 1921 and into the next day, a white mob reportedly 5,000-10,000 strong attacked the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The segregated and vibrant Black enclave of prosperous businesses was known widely as ‘Black Wall Street.’
The attackers looted and burned an estimated 1,256 homes, and they razed to the ground about 40 square blocks—nearly all of the district’s churches, schools, hospitals and businesses. About 9,000 Greenwood residents were left homeless.
The number of people killed may never be known, but a 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Massacre of 1921 estimated that at least 75 to 100 people died in the Massacre. At least one other source has put the death toll much higher, at 300.
The 2001 commission also found credible contemporary reports of mass burials. In 2018 the City of Tulsa began the process of locating these mass graves. Within the past year, state archeologists pinpointed the location of one potential mass gravesite. Authorities are now taking steps to exhume the bodies for identification and reburial.
“I have said so before, and I will say it again—the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre can fairly be described as an act of ethnic cleansing, which was subsequently wiped from the history books for many decades despite having made national news at the time,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), House Judiciary Committee Chairman in his opening statement.
The hearing featured testimony from three survivors: Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle—all centenarians who were children when the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre took place.
“Mother” Randle, 106, testified via Zoom that growing up in Greenwood was idyllic before the tragedy. “It was a beautiful Black community,” she said of her childhood. “I felt very safe.”
Yet at six-years-old, her family’s world was shattered by what she described as “white men with guns,” who “destroyed” the community. “We didn’t understand. Why? What did we do to them?” Randle asked.
During the emotional hearing, committee members listened with rapt attention and rose to their feet to applaud the survivors. The body also heard from descendants of survivors: Regina Goodwin, an Oklahoma State Representative; and Chief Egunwale Amusan, President of the Tulsa African Ancestral Society.
Community members who discussed the Massacre and its impact included: Damario Solomon-Simmons, Founder/Executive Director, Justice for Greenwood; T.W. Shannon, former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives; and Tiffany Crutcher, Founder/Director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation. Terence Crutcher was an unarmed husband and father who was fatally shot in September 2016 by a Tulsa police officer.
Clarence Henderson of The Frederick Douglass Foundation, Dreisen Heath of Human Rights Watch; and Eric Miller, Professor of Law at Loyola Marymount University, also weighed in.
“In addition to commemorating the Massacre’s victims, this hearing is also another opportunity to consider the Massacre’s long-lasting repercussions for the survivors, their descendants, and Tulsa’s greater Black community, and what role Congress can play in remedying this historic injustice,” said Nadler.
The 2001 commission report found significant evidence demonstrating that not only did local and state authorities fail in their responsibility to maintain civil order, but government agents actually aided the mob in carrying out the Massacre.
Thousands of Black residents were interned for days and weeks after the Massacre under the justification that it was for their so-called protection.
“A majority of the 2001 commission members declared at that time that ‘reparations to the historic Greenwood community in real and tangible form would be good public policy and do much to repair the emotional and physical scars of this terrible incident in our shared past’,” said Nadler. “It is now 20 years later and neither the State nor the City of Tulsa has directly compensated survivors or their descendants. Survivors and their descendants have tried to seek legal redress from the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma for Massacre-related harms. Unfortunately, these claims have never been decided on the merits.”
In 2004, he said, the Tenth Circuit was divided but upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing Greenwood survivors’ claims. The court held that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and that no equitable equivalent applied.
Beyond the courts, Congress has authority and this isn’t the first time lawmakers have discussed Greenwood. Back in 2007, a Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on legislation authored by the late Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. It would have created a new federal cause of action for Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre claimants that would permit their cases to be decided on the merits.
“Similar legislation that helps address relevant statutes of limitation issues that have bedeviled these claims in the past certainly remains one potential avenue for survivors and their descendants to obtain compensation,” said Nadler.
He noted that the Subcommittee should also examine other proposals for reparations, with particular consideration given to the Massacre’s contribution to the racial and economic disparities that exist in Tulsa today.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is addressing this issue too. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) spoke recently on the House floor to mark 100 years since the massacre, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) secured a House vote on a resolution recognizing the tragedy.
On Thursday May 27, a webinar called “Remembering the Greenwood Massacre: 100 Years from Tulsa to the Insurrection-Reconciliation, Restoration, & Reparations,” will be held with CBC members, descendants of survivors, advocates, and reps from the documentary film ‘Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten’ on Zoom/Facebook Live.
While acknowledging the pain and losses of the massacre, survivor Hughes Van Ellis—a 100-year-old WWII veteran—told members of Congress that he is not bitter. “I still believe in America,” he said. “I hope we will all work together. We are one.”