Survivors Of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Share Eyewitness Accounts

May 19, 2021
Originally published on May 28, 2021 4:29 pm

The day that a white mob came to Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Okla., Viola Fletcher was just 7 years old.

During emotional testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, 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. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."

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 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," he said. "That wasn't the case for us."

"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."

: 5/18/21

A previous version of this story incorrectly said the three massacre survivors testified on Tuesday. The hearing was on Wednesday.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

100 years ago, a white mob descended on a prosperous Black business district in Tulsa, Okla. That mob killed hundreds in one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Well, today, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers heard from living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: When the mobs came to Greenwood, Viola Fletcher was just 7 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIOLA FLETCHER: I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.

SUMMERS: Fletcher was one of three survivors of that violence to testify before a House panel. Historians say that the massacre left as many as 300 Black people dead and more than 10,000 homeless. Once known as Black Wall Street, Greenwood was destroyed. Lessie Benningfield Randall described what it was like to live in Greenwood as a child. Testifying by video conference, she said it was a place where she had no fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESSIE BENNINGFIELD RANDALL: Then everything changed. It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn't understand why.

SUMMERS: Now, as Tulsa prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre, survivors like Fletcher want reparations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLETCHER: I am 107 years old and have never been - seen justice. I pray that one day will. I have been blessed with a long life and have seen the best and the worst of this country. I think about the terror - horror - inflicted upon Black people in this country every day.

SUMMERS: Fletcher's younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, testified, too. The World War II veteran wore a U.S. Army ball cap, and he described the multiple unsuccessful attempts by survivors and their relatives to seek justice through the courts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGHES VAN ELLIS: 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.

SUMMERS: Ellis (ph), who's 100, called for the last survivors of the Tulsa race Massacre to be acknowledged while they're still living.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN ELLIS: Please do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the others - massacre survivors. Thank you so much.

SUMMERS: Each survivor's testimony was met with a standing ovation.

(APPLAUSE)

SUMMERS: When Ellis finished, he was asked if there was anything else he would like to say. He thanked the committee for listening to him and said he hoped they would be able to work together. Then, he lifted one finger in the air and said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN ELLIS: We are one. We are one.

SUMMERS: Lessie Benningfield Randall says she has survived 100 years of painful memories and a fight for justice that is long overdue.

RANDALL: I am here today, 106 years old, looking at you all in the eye. We have waited 100 years - no, we have waited too long. And I am tired. We are tired.

SUMMERS: Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPIE SABOTAGE SONG, "OM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.