100 Years After “The Tulsa Race Massacre” remarkable survivors demand justice

Viola Floyd Fletcher
Viola Floyd Fletcher, Photo by Stefani Reynolds via www.nytimes.com

By Makheru Bradley

June 3, 2021 1:55PM
Makheru Bradley

On May 19, three phenomenal Afrikan American centenarians, 107-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher, 106-year-old Lessie Beddingfield Randle, and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis, testified at a Congressional hearing titled “Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre.” That the hearings were held on the birthday of Omowale Malcolm X may have been a coincidence, but the demands for justice articulated by these elders were clearly in Malcolm’s spirit.

Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen presided over the hearing saying: “Our hearing today serves two primary purposes. First, it is a commemoration of a milestone anniversary, the centenary of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre of 1921, one of the most painful episodes in our Nation’s long and tortured history of race relations… The second purpose is to highlight the many ways that the Black community of Tulsa continues to suffer from the effects of the Massacre.”

The white supremacist terror unleashed on Tulsa’s self-sustaining and prosperous Greenwood community, known as “Little Africa,” and “Black Wall Street” was one of the most deadly and destructive crimes against humanity in United States history. This crime was part of a pattern of white racial violence that began immediately after the Civil War in numerous cities including Memphis, Colfax, LA, and Wilmington, NC, continuing and escalating in the 20th century, particularly during the Red Summer of 1919. In many instances white supremacists were motivated by the fact that Afrikan Americans were thriving under American Apartheid in places like Ocoee, FL and Tulsa. Numerous lies were used as excuses to destroy entire Black communities.

The Big Lie

The lie in Tulsa was that 19-year-old Dick Rowland had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old white woman elevator operator on May 30, 1921. Armed white men gathered outside of the jail where Rowland was being held, demanding that he be released and lynched. A group of armed Afrikan American men, including WWI veterans, arrived to prevent the lynching. When a white man attempted to disarm one of the Black men, a shot was fired, and the lynch mob was organized into a deputized militia. They began their march into and destruction of Greenwood on May 31, 1921. Coincidently Dick Rowland was later exonerated and the charges against him were dropped. That investigation concluded that Rowland most likely tripped and stepped on the white woman’s foot.

According to Valerie Williams, that simple trip resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 Afrikan Americans, with over 600 successful businesses destroyed, and over 1,500 homes burned to the ground. The terrorists even destroyed the Black hospital, a war crime by any standards.

As the outnumbered and outgunned Black men continued to fight, Tulsa authorities resorted to dropping petrol bombs from airplanes on the Black community, as if they were bombing the Germans during WWI. We should note the latest official estimates are for only 300 killed, but thousands of Black people were never accounted for and mass graves are just being discovered.

The intense testimonies of the remarkable centenarians

Elder Ford Fletcher said: “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. I live through the Massacre every day.

We lost everything that day. Our homes. Our churches. Our newspapers. Our theaters. Our lives. Greenwood represented the best of what was possible for Black people in America – and for all people. No one cared about us for almost 100 years. We, and our history, have been forgotten, washed away. This Congress must recognize us, and our history.”

Elder Benningfield Randle said: "I didn't have any fears as a young child and I felt very safe. My community was beautiful and was filled with happy and successful Black people. Then everything changed.

It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them? We didn’t understand. We were just living. But they came, and they destroyed everything. They burned houses and businesses. They just took what they wanted out of the buildings then they burned them. They murdered people. We were told they just dumped the dead bodies into the river. I remember running outside of our house. I ran past dead bodies. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I still see it today in my mind – 100 years later.

The white people who did this to us, were filled with so much hate. It is disgusting that they hate us for no reason except that we are Black people. We know – most of the people who committed these acts are dead now. The three of us here today, are the only ones left – that we know of. But just because these men are probably dead, the City and County of Tulsa, the State of Oklahoma, and the Tulsa Chamber are still responsible for making it right.”

Elder Hughes Van Ellis said: When I returned home from (World War II), I didn’t find any of the freedom I was fighting for overseas. Unlike white servicemen, I wasn’t entitled to GI Bill benefits because of the color of my skin. I came home to segregation. A separate and unequal America. But still I believed in America.

This is why we are still speaking up today, even at the age of 100. The Tulsa Race Massacre 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.

We’re not asking for a handout. All we are asking for is for a chance to be treated like a first-class citizen who truly is a beneficiary of the promise that this is a land where there is “liberty and justice for all.” We are asking for justice for a lifetime of ongoing harm. Harm that was caused by the Massacre. 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.'

The Demand for Reparations

Several others testified during the hearing including Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the granddaughter of Rebecca Brown Crutcher, who had to flee her Greenwood home to survive. She is also the twin sister of Terence Crutcher who was killed by a Tulsa police officer on September 16, 2016.

Dr. Crutcher called for reparations which “are simply making amends for a wrong and that is what we are asking for today.” Certainly the few remaining Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and their descendants meet the standards that have been used to pay reparations to European Jews.

In 2005, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a Tulsa Reparations lawsuit for 150 survivors of the massacre. That lawsuit, Alexander v. State of Oklahoma, was filed by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree. It was beyond a shadow of doubt one of the best cases for reparations ever presented in the US. The case came before the SCOTUS after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was too late for riot survivors and their descendants to sue the state. The Supreme Court did not offer any comment on its decision not to hear the case. It’s amazing that it’s never too late for the European Jewish victims of the Nazi’s, but it was too late for Afrikan American survivors of a crime against humanity.

A new Tulsa Reparations lawsuit has been filed by Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons under the state’s public nuisance law. That lawsuit contends that Tulsa's long history of racial division and tension stemmed from the massacre… The city and insurance companies never compensated victims for their losses, and the massacre ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that still exist today. “We're not just talking about what happened in 1921. We're talking about what's still happening," Solomon-Simmons said.

In Tulsa, truth has been forever on the scaffold and wrong has been forever on the throne. Dr. Martin L. King, quoting the poet Lowell says, the “scaffold sways the future.” Elders Ford Fletcher, Beddingfield Randle, and Van Ellis, along with Dr. Tiffany Crutcher and many others have been on the scaffold. They are relentless in trying to sway the future towards truth and justice. Their 100-year struggle continues.

For more from the author, follow his blog Makheru Speaks.

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