Mrs. Viola Fletcher, now 107, gave compelling testimony in Congress on Wednesday recounting the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and calling for justice.
During what became known as the Red Summer of 1919, anti-Black riots erupted in 25 major American cities, including Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Omaha, Charleston, Elaine, Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. White mobs intent on protecting their economic and social dominance from growing communities of Black workers attacked Black communities, destroyed property, and killed or injured hundreds of Black people.
Mrs. Fletcher was seven years old that summer, when white mobs attacked prosperous Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. Over two days starting on May 31, some historians estimate as many as 300 Black people were killed and 10,000 were left homeless. Greenwood, a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street, was destroyed.
“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,” Mrs. Fletcher testified before a House Judiciary Subcommittee this week. “I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”
Mrs. Fletcher’s younger brother Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle—100 and 106, respectively—also testified. They are the three known survivors who witnessed the massacre firsthand.
The 1921 Tulsa Massacre
From May 31 to June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, resulting in the deaths of at least 36 Black residents, the destruction of 36 city blocks, and the displacement of over 10,000 Black people.
On May 31, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black teenager, was jailed after being accused of assaulting a white woman. Although the charges were dropped, the Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory story that mobilized a white mob to try to lynch Mr. Rowland. Members of the Black community stationed themselves at the courthouse to protect him.
Reports indicate that local authorities provided firearms and ammunition to the mob of thousands of white people, who began firing at the Black men trying to protect Mr. Rowland. The men retreated toward Greenwood and the white mob, joined by city-appointed deputies, pursued them. The white mob terrorized the entire Black community, deliberately shooting Black residents and burning homes and buildings.
When the Oklahoma National Guard was called to intervene, they ignored the mob’s rampage and instead arrested hundreds of Black survivors. Public officials failed to keep records of Black people who were wounded or killed. While the estimated number of deaths is at least 36, witnesses reported that more than 300 Black people were killed.
No one was held accountable for Greenwood’s devastation.
A Call for Justice
Mr. Van Ellis, a World War II veteran, told lawmakers that, in the century since the massacre and destruction of Greenwood, the survivors have been denied any compensation. A federal lawsuit was dismissed as “too late.”
“We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice,” Mr. Van Ellis testified. “That we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully American. We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.”
Mrs. Fletcher, Mr. Van Ellis, and Ms. Randle, together with other plaintiffs, have sued the city of Tulsa for covering up the attack, portraying Black victims as instigators of the violence, and profiting from the use of victims’ names and stories while survivors and their descendants continue to live in poverty. They are seeking punitive damages, tax relief, and scholarships for survivors and their descendants.
The committee that heard their testimony this week is studying reparations for the descendants of millions of enslaved Black people.
Ms. Randle testified remotely by video that Greenwood, reduced from a flourishing business district with 40 blocks of restaurants, hotels, and theaters to only half a block, has never been rebuilt. “My opportunities were taken from me and my community,” she said.
“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait,” Ms. Randle told the committee. “Others have told us it’s too late. It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people. And we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”
After a century of distorting and ignoring this history, the survivors are demanding that local and federal officials confront the truth about the Tulsa Massacre.
“I am here seeking justice,” Mrs. Fletcher said. “I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”