Just days before Tulsa was set to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, three massacre survivors—107-year-old Viola Fletcher, 106-year-old Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis—testified before a House Judiciary Committee, demanding justice and reparations for the pogrom that destroyed their all-Black neighborhood of Greenwood and sent their families running for their lives.
“The night of the massacre I was woken up by my family,” Fletcher recounted at the May 19 hearing. “My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave. And that was it. I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house. I still see Black men being shot, and 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 recalled fleeing with her family during the attack, which began on May 31 and continued until June 1. As many as 300 Black people were killed, more than 700 injured, and more than 1,200 homes and businesses were burned. Greenwood, an all-Black community once so prosperous it’s remembered as Black Wall Street, was reduced to ashes. (See how much wealth was lost when Greenwood burned.)
“I live through the massacre every day,” said Fletcher, who wore a pink print dress as she sat at the witness table. “Our country may forget this history. I cannot. I will not. The other survivors do not. And our descendants do not.” (Discover how Tulsa is finally confronting the day a white mob destroyed a Black community.)
By solemnly observing the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, by apologizing as the city council officially did for the first time on June 2, and, more crucially, by pursuing a search for mass graves, Tulsa is attempting to reckon with this history. Yet the ceremonies held over Memorial Day weekend and into this week haven’t dispelled a dispute that rages among survivors, descendants, residents, and public officials over how to remember one of the single worst acts of racial terror committed against Black people in U.S. history—and what kind of reparations should be paid for the intentional annihilation of a Black community.
Tulsa commemorates the massacre
Last weekend, crowds gathered in Tulsa to remember the massacre with marches, parades, speeches, dedications, and religious services. On Tuesday, June 1, President Joe Biden flew to Tulsa to meet with the last known survivors and descendants of victims. He also visited the Greenwood Cultural Center, where he toured the Hall of Survivors, a gallery displaying photos of dozens of survivors, many of whom have died without seeing justice for their suffering. (Learn about the life of one of Greenwood’s richest men—the great great great grandfather of a National Geographic writer.)
In a major policy speech, Biden called for building generational wealth and reducing the wealth gap between Black and white Americans. He also announced the appointment of Vice President Kamala Harris to lead a fight against voting rights suppression.
He had traveled to Greenwood to “acknowledge the truth,” he explained, and to increase awareness of the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which had for too long been “cloaked in silence.”
“Darkness can hide much, but it erases nothing,” Biden said. “Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous they can’t be buried no matter how hard people try. So it is here where, only with truth, can come healing, justice and repair. That isn’t enough. First, we have to hear, see, and give respect to Mother Randle, Mother Fletcher, and Mr. Van Ellis. And to all those lost so many years ago. To all descendants who suffered. To the community—that is why we are here to shine a light. To make sure America knows the story in full.”
The commemorations didn’t all go smoothly. A star-studded event featuring Stacey Abrams and John Legend was canceled after a disagreement over reparations to the living survivors. Construction delays pushed back the grand opening of the controversial Greenwood Rising, a state-of-the-art history and cultural center designed to honor the legacy of Black Wall Street before and after the massacre.
Greenwood Rising is a project of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which raised $30 million for the museum. The commission appointed a company called Local Projects to develop an exhibition space that would tell the story of Greenwood by recreating the bustle of the all-Black community on “the very site where Black Wall Street used to stand.”
Designed by the Tulsa firm Selser Schaefer Architects, the museum features an immersive experience that includes a virtual barber shop and beauty salon, where barbers and hairdressers recount the story of Greenwood and its history. A Hall of Fame Gallery showcases some of Greenwood’s founders, including millionaires and businesspeople such as O.W. Gurley, J.B. Stradford, Simon Berry, A.C. Jackson, B.C. Franklin, John and Loula Williams, Mabel B. Little, A.J. Smitherman, Ellis Walker Woods, and J.D. Mann. The commission said it hoped that Greenwood Rising—and the visitors it would draw to the neighborhood—would be considered a form of reparation for a community that was destroyed 100 years ago.
But the massacre survivors, dozens of descendants, and many activists in Greenwood say they are outraged by the city’s emphasis on cultural tourism. What was lost in all the celebrations, activists say, was a meaningful payment of reparations to the still-living survivors. They say the $30-million museum built in the heart of Greenwood stands on sacred ground and is not legitimate reparations for survivors and descendants who have fought for justice for nearly 100 years.
Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represents massacre survivors and descendants in a reparations lawsuit filed in 2020 against the City of Tulsa and state officials, testified at the May 19 congressional hearing. “As I speak, the same perpetrators of the massacre—the city, the county, the chamber, the state—are utilizing a massacre to pad their own pockets,” he said. “These people have raised more than $30 million in the name of the massacre for what they call cultural tourism. Not one penny has been given to any of the survivors. Not one dime has been paid for any of the outstanding claims.”
Lingering effects of destruction
Before the massacre, Greenwood had at least 41 grocery and meat markets, 30 restaurants, 11 boarding and rooming houses, nine billiards parlors, five hotels, a savings and loan, and countless other small businesses, as well as churches, schools, a Black-owned hospital, and a library. Most of these businesses and cultural institutions were destroyed in the massacre.
One hundred years later, North Tulsa, which incorporates Greenwood, has no hospital and few stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables. “About 19 percent of Tulsa County residents live in areas considered ‘food deserts,’” wrote Dreisen Heath in a 2020 Human Rights Watch report titled The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “and 45 percent of Tulsa’s population have low access to nutritious food. The areas considered food deserts are primarily in North Tulsa.” Life expectancy for Black people in that part of town is 11 to 14 years lower than white people in other parts of Tulsa.
“Poverty, race, and geography correlate substantially in Tulsa,” wrote Heath. “North Tulsa is significantly poorer than other parts of the city.”
About 33.5 percent of Black people in North Tulsa live in poverty, compared to 13.4 percent in South Tulsa. North Tulsa has fewer businesses and fewer employers than South Tulsa. “Unemployment overall for Black people is 2.4 times the rate for white people,” according to the report. “The median household income for Black households throughout Tulsa is below $30,000. It is above $50,000 for white households.”
Residential redlining and the federal policy of urban renewal, which led to the construction of two expressways right through Greenwood, contributed to the decline of the once prosperous all-Black community. “By the early 1970s, these policies had claimed and demolished so many businesses and homes in Tulsa, more than 1,000, many of them in Greenwood, that black Tulsans would come to call urban renewal ‘urban removal,’” according to the report. “This led black Tulsans to move north, east, and west—but with few exceptions, not to the more prosperous neighborhoods south of the railroad tracks.”
Greenwood also suffers from a legacy of police violence, according to another Human Rights Watch report, titled “‘Get on the Ground!’: Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” Investigators for the 2019 report discovered that Black people in Tulsa were “subjected to physical force, including tasers, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks, at a rate 2.7 times that of white people.”
In some neighborhoods, Black and poor people were stopped by police at “more than 10 times the rate of predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods,” according to the report. “Arrests and citations lead to staggering accumulations of court fees, fines, and costs, often for very minor offenses, that trap poor people in a cycle of debt and further arrests for failing to pay.”
The report was released three years after the fatal police shooting of Terence Crutcher, who was killed on September 16, 2016, after his SUV stalled in the middle of a highway in Tulsa. Crutcher, who was on his way to choir practice at church, was shot with his hands up. His twin sister, Tiffany Crutcher, testified at the May 19 congressional hearing. “Vestiges of the massacre are still bound in Tulsa’s criminal legal justice system,” she said, “which has torn my family apart.”
Not giving up on justice
Massacre survivors and their descendants say the economic disparities are a direct result of the massacre, and of a city and state that have failed to make amends. Reparations, they say, should not come in the form of the Greenwood Rising Center but as payments to address the loss of generational wealth and the disparities they say the massacre created.
But reparation means different things to different people. “You have one group of folks who point to existing disparities that are long term and a desire to do work necessary to address those and make the city better moving forward,” Mayor G.T. Bynum told me. “Most Tulsans support that, whether they call it reparations. I have run for mayor twice on that platform and won in double digits.”
Paying money to survivors and descendants, on the other hand, presents challenges, particularly in how to pay for it. “The main issue there would occur with some sort of tax on the citizens of Tulsa,” Bynum said. “I don’t feel right adding a financial penalty on this generation of Tulsans for something criminals did 100 years ago. That is where direct cash payments become problematic.”
The Reverend Robert Turner, pastor of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church where some Black people sought refuge during the massacre, has gone to City Hall each Wednesday to demand reparations be paid to victims and descendants of the massacre.
“Reparations look like justice,” Turner told me. “Nothing has been done to pay for slavery from 1619, and nothing has been done in regard to the worst race massacre in American history. Meanwhile, we have compensated other parts of this state for mass terror—the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet Greenwood, the first site of an aerial bombing terrorism in this country, has not received a dime.”
In the aftermath of the massacre, no white person was ever convicted, and no Black person was ever compensated. Black property owners immediately filed insurance claims for losses, which were rejected. When they sued for compensation, their cases—193 of them—were dismissed by the courts.
Even as massacre survivors died one by one, those who were still living kept fighting for justice and reparations. In 2003, two years after the conclusion of the state’s first official investigation into the massacre, 150 survivors filed a lawsuit against Tulsa, its police department, and the state of Oklahoma. A lower court dismissed the case, ruling that the two-year statute of limitations had long passed. Appeals courts dismissed it as well, ruling that while the two-year statute of limitations wasn’t sufficient, the survivors still should have brought their case much earlier. They’d somehow missed their chance.
In 2005, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. The survivors, many of them in their 80s and 90s, were utterly deflated, having hoped for justice before they died.
But they tried again on April 24, 2007, at a hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Olivia Hooker, then 86, gave a riveting speech:
“Picture with me the trauma of a young six-year-old girl hearing things hitting the house, ‘bang, bang, bang, bang’ like that, and thinking it was hail until my mother took me to the window and let me peer through the blinds and said, ‘That thing up there on the stand with the American flag on top of it is a machine gun. And those are bullets hitting the house. And that means your country is shooting at you.’”
Hooker told Congress that her childhood home was destroyed. “The entire neighborhood destroyed, the businesses destroyed, all the services destroyed, our school bombed on the day that we should have been getting our report cards to move up to the next class so that the children of Tulsa were very devastated.”
Hooker died in 2018 at the age of 103 without receiving any compensation for her family’s losses.
Fourteen years after Hooker spoke to the House Judiciary Committee, the three last known living survivors of the massacre appeared before Congress.
Hughes Van Ellis wore a red war veterans cap. He served in World War II with the 234th AAA Gun Battalion, an all-Black battalion. “You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole,” he said. “You can go to the courts to get justice. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late.”
Ellis reminded the members of Congress that the Tulsa Race Massacre is living history. “The Tulsa Race Massacre,” he said, “isn’t a footnote in a history book for us. We live with it every day and the thought of what Greenwood was and what it could have been. We aren’t just black and white pictures on a screen, we are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened, I’m still here. My sister was there when it happened, she’s still here.”
He told the committee that he and his sister were not asking for a handout. “We are asking for justice for a lifetime of ongoing harm, harm that was caused by the massacre,” he said. “You can give us the chance to be heard and give us a chance to be made whole after all these years and after all our struggle. I still believe in America.”
Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, testifying virtually from Tulsa, acknowledged that most of the people who committed the atrocities are dead.
“But just because these men are probably dead,” she said, “the City and County of Tulsa, the State of Oklahoma, and the Tulsa Chamber are still responsible for making it right. The city and county caused this to happen to us—the state allowed this to happen to us—they didn't protect us. The Chamber helped ensure that we could not rebuild after the massacre, including holding us in internment camps.”
Those entities “owe us something,” she said. “They owe me something. I have lived much of my life poor. My opportunities were taken from me. And my community, North Tulsa—Black Tulsa—is still messed up today.”
She paused, “I am here today, at 106 years old, looking you all in the eye. We've waited too long, and I am tired. We are tired. I am asking you today to give us some peace. Please give me, my family, and my community some justice.”
DeNeen L. Brown, a native of Oklahoma, has written extensively about the race massacre. Follow her on Twitter @DeNeenLBrown