Viola Fletcher, the oldest survivor of the racist attack on Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street”, testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing to mark the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Viola Fletcher was 7 when a white mob destroyed the all-Black neighbourhood in Tulsa and killed 300 Black people. For nearly a century the survivors have been denied a voice due to the fact that several generations of white-supremacist Oklahoma governments worked continuously to hide the events from the country’s historical memory.
On 31 May and 1 June 1921 Greenwood became the site of the bloodiest and largest massacres of non-military action in the history of America when a white mob attacked the city’s “Black Wall Street”, killing an estimated 300 Black Americans and robbing and burning more than 1,200 homes, businesses, and churches.
100 years later, at the age of 107, Viola Fletcher, her 100-year-old brother, Hughes Van Ellis and 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle – the only living survivors of the massacre – are still demanding justice.
At the hearing Viola read from a prepared statement. “I am here seeking justice. I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”
Viola went on to describe the night that she was awoken by her family and told that they had to leave their home. She said: “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. I have lived through the massacre every day.”
“We lost everything that day, our homes, our churches, our newspapers, our theatres, our lives.”
“Greenwood represented all the best of what was possible for Black people in America and for all the people.”
Fletcher asked that the country acknowledge her experience and give the survivors a chance to seek justice. “I believe we must acknowledge America’s sins,” she said. “It is the least we can do.”
Viola’s brother Hughes Van Ellis, a second world war veteran, went on to testify next. He broke into tears as he told the subcommittee how he fought for the United States overseas but had not received justice in his own country.
“Please do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors,” Ellis said.
Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, 106, testified virtually. She said: “It means a lot to me to finally be able to look at you all in the eye and ask you to do the right thing. I have waited so long for justice.”
Investigating the Tulsa Race massacre
In 1996, following increased attention to the riot because of the 75th anniversary of the event, the state legislature authorised the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, to study and prepare a “historical account” of the riot.
In 2001 the commission delivered its final report calling for substantial restitution.
In 2019, Tulsa began searching for mass graves that may be connected to the massacre. In October 2020, the city found a mass grave in the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery. The city plans to continue excavating the site on June 1.