After 100 Years, The Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Can Still Hear The Screams
Viola Fletcher was seven years old when a white mob viciously attacked Black people, their homes, and their businesses, in Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood District. The 1921 massacre is considered the "single worst incident of racial violence in American history," and if you know American history, that's saying something. City officials deputized most of the mob and gave them weapons, so this was state-sanctioned violence, carried out from the ground and from private aircraft. The mob destroyed thirty-five square blocks of the Greenwood District, a Black community so wealthy at the time it was known as “Black Wall Street." When the assault was over, close to 300 Black people were dead.
Viola Fletcher can still hear the screams. We know this because after almost 100 years, she's still here to tell us, to link this atrocity with the racial violence that still occurs today. Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa massacre, testified Wednesday at the House Judiciary Subcommittee. She was joined by two other survivors, her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle.
"On May 31, of '21, I went to bed in my family's home in Greenwood," [Fletcher] said. "The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture … and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future."
"Within a few hours," Fletcher said, "all of that was gone."
"The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. 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 home," she said, "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."
"I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."
The Memorial Day massacre started because a 19-year-old Black man, Dick Rowland, tripped while entering an elevator. As he fell, he grabbed the arm of the white elevator operator, Sarah Page. She screamed, and a white store clerk accused him of attempted rape. Hundreds of white men gathered around the jail where Rowland was confined, and about 75 Black men, some of them armed, showed up to prevent the mob from lynching Rowland before his sham trial. Soon, all hell broke loose. The white mob started a riot that lasted 16 hours before martial law was imposed.
The economic impact was estimated at a loss of $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (roughly $22 million and $11 million in today's dollars). Financial restitution was not forthcoming. About 10,000 black residents were left homeless. Fletcher was one of them. Her family displaced, she was unable to finish school beyond the fourth grade and struggled for most of her life.
Tulsa tried to erase the massacre from history and pretend it never happened. The Black people who remained after the massacre kept silent for their own safety. This is a true example of “whitewashing" history, and it's not shocking that it succeeded for so long. Republicans and conservative media are already gaslighting Americans about a more recent white mob's attack on the US Capitol. We have the footage on video, and they still believe they can get away with it.
Fletcher appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday to demand justice, and that's a big ask from a Black person of any age.
"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."
The massacre's remaining survivors are plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit filed last year. The lawsuit contends that the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa are responsible for the mob's actions. It's not uncommon to hear white people insist that they bear no accountability for past racial violence. Even someone here in liberal mecca Portland once said to me, “Well, no one who suffered then is alive now. There's a statute of limitations on these things." Well, there's no statute of limitations on murder, and as for the resulting economic hardship, Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle are still alive, motherfucker. It's time to pay up.
Van Ellis testified yesterday that survivors and their descendants had tried (and failed) multiple times to seek the illusion Americans call justice.
"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."
Van Ellis is a World War II veteran. Yes, twenty years after the massacre, he fought for a country that turned its back on him and would continue to do so.
"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," Van Ellis said. "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."
Randle, speaking over video conference, described seeing dead Black bodies float into the Arkansas River as her family fled the mob without protection from white officials. She was just six years old.
She sadly noted that “Black Tulsa is still messed up today. They didn't rebuild it. It's empty. It's a ghetto." How many white people drove past the desolate community over the years and assumed it was crappy because that's just how Black people are?
"We have waited too long, and I am tired," she said. "We are tired. Lastly, I am asking you today to give us some peace. Please give me, my family and my community some justice."
In a 1996 episode of "The X-Files," Dana Scully is told: "We bury our dead alive, don't we? ... We hear them every day. They talk to us. They haunt us. They beg us for meaning. Conscience is just the voices of the dead trying to save us from our own damnation."
A century has passed since this unspeakable act of racial hatred, and Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle have spoken to America's conscience, if there is one. Now Randle just hopes that “you will all listen to us while we are still here."
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."