Past Due: Black Tulsans Recall Horrors of 1921 Massacre

A full century after a white mob destroyed the predominantly Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a group of now very old survivors told House lawmakers that they are still waiting on justice. 

Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre. (Image courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In May 1921, a 19-year-old Black man named Dick Rowland accidentally stepped on a white woman’s toe in Tulsa, Oklahoma, causing her to scream. Rowland fled the scene but was later arrested for sexual assault. On May 31, a mob of white Tulsans began to congregate outside the county courthouse with talk of lynching. They soon descended on the predominantly Black neighborhood of Greenwood.  

The district, once so wealthy that it came to be known as “Black Wall Street,” was soon reduced to rubble. Three hundred Black Tulsans were murdered, and thousands were rendered homeless in the chaos that lasted two days.  

On Wednesday, the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing commemorating 100 years since the tragedy. The subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties heard testimonies from three survivors and descendants of the massacre, as well as lawyers, lawmakers and advocates, all demanding reparations from the government in order to do right by the victims. 

The hearing was designated to “consider what legal and policy measures might be enacted to compensate the survivors and descendants of Tulsa’s greater Black community,” Representative Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat and chairman of the full judiciary committee.  

Viola Ford Fletcher had gone to bed the night the attacks broke out. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich,” she recalled, “not just in terms of wealth, but in culture, community and heritage.” Within hours, she said, her family’s beautiful home was lost along with all their possessions. Fletcher spent most of her life as a domestic worker for white families as a result.

Despite turning 107 a week ago — an announcement that was met with applause in the chamber — Fletcher is still haunted by what she’d witnessed. “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house,” she said. “I still see Black men being shot, and Black bodies lying in the street.” 

Fletcher said Black Wall Street represented what was possible for all Black people in America, but there was news coverage upon its destruction: “We and our history have been forgotten, washed away.” 

Hughes Van Ellis, a World War II veteran and another survivor, recalled that seeking justice was nearly impossible. “You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole. You can go to the courts to get justice,” he testified. “This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late.” 

“It was like a war,” Lessie Benningfield Randle, a 106-year-old survivor, recounted. “White men with guns came and destroyed my community.” 

Randle, alongside descendants and advocates, filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa in September 2020 demanding financial compensation from the “ongoing nuisance” Black Tulsans face stemming from the massacre. “Following the Massacre, Defendants exacerbated the damage and suffering of the Greenwood residents,” the complaint argues. “From the period immediately after the Massacre until the present day, Defendants actively and unlawfully thwarted the community’s efforts to rebuild, neglecting the Greenwood and predominantly Black, North Tulsa communities.” 

As a result, attorneys say, Black Tulsans make $20,000 less on average than their white counterparts, and face double the unemployment rate. 

Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, a descendant of a Tulsa survivor, said the government must not only issue reparations to the Black Tulsans impacted but also bring H.R. 40, a bill to study reparations on a national scale, to a swift House vote. The House Judiciary Committee advanced it to the full House in April, but it’s expected to face harsh opposition. 

Oklahoma State Rep. Regina Goodwin also called for a firm legislative response. “Reparations are due,” she said. “Restoration is due. Restitution is due.” 

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