This photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa shows crowds of people watching fires during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO

They were children when a prosperous Black community was demolished into nothingness before their eyes a hundred years ago. Imagine their fear and bewilderment on May 31-June 1, 1921, witnessing the total destruction of their homes and the community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla. 

Viola Fletcher was just seven years old when a mob of Whites attacked an area famously known as “Black Wall Street.” She is the oldest living survivor of the hate-filled mass violence that left 300 Black people dead and 1,200 businesses, homes and churches robbed and burned to the ground. It was a wealthy Black owned neighborhood sent into oblivion because some area Whites wanted Greenwood’s Black prosperity gone. Whites were deputized and given guns as they dropped kerosene bombs on African-American properties from airplanes.

Ms. Fletcher, now 107 years old, recalls the vicious, crowd scene as she testified before Congress on May 19.  She and two other survivors testified to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. “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.”

In this photo provided by the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, the Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns in Tulsa, Okla. during the Tulsa Race Massacre of June 1, 1921. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

Hughes Van Ellis, a 100-year-old survivor of the massacre, is Ms. Fletcher’s younger brother; he also testified. “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 for justice. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice.”

A third survivor is 106 year old Lessie Benningfield Randle, who testified on ZOOM to the House subcommittee.  “I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses.  I have survived to tell this story. I believe I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now you will listen to us while we are still here.”

The three last known survivors of the unspeakable crime in Tulsa 100 years ago, are still seeking justice after all these years.  Having witnessed the destructive drama and experienced the lifelong trauma, they are asking Congress to pay reparations for the “continued damage done to their Oklahoma community.” They are plaintiffs, with others, seeking justice through a lawsuit filed against the city of Tulsa last September. In addition to being subjected to psychological and emotional trauma, the Black citizens of Tulsa lost their homes, their schools, their churches and their livelihoods.  They lost everything and have never been compensated.  The city of Tulsa remains a strongly racially segregated city, and though word of Black Wall Street’s demise was completely covered up, the story is slowly being told.  Perhaps the lawsuit on behalf of the descendants and the moving testimony of the three survivors will help bring justice and peace to the hearts and minds of those who were affected by the massacre and the mass destruction.

Following Ms. Fletcher’s testimony, members of Congress gave her a standing ovation. A resolution was introduced by Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation calling for remembrance and reconciliation. But what is mostly needed by Black citizens of Tulsa, who have carried the pain of hatred, murder and destruction for up to 100 years; what they have asked for is reparations.

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