Moments after falling asleep on 31 May, 1921, seven-year-old Viola Fletcher was awakened by her family and told to leave her home in the Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Outside, a white mob drove thousands of Black residents from their homes and businesses and killed as many as 300 people, one of the bloodiest episodes of racist violence in the US, one in which no one was ever charged with a crime.
Ms Fletcher, now 107 years old, and the last two other known survivors of the Tulsa race massacre – Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle – testified to Congress on 19 May to address the massacre’s legacy of racism and call for justice for the families and communities in its shadow.
“I will never forget the violence,” Ms Fletcher told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
“Black men being shot. Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke. I still see Black businesses being burned,” she said. “I hear the screams. I live through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not.”
A mob supported by law enforcement and city officials stormed the Greenwood neighbourhood, then known as Black Wall Street, where 35 blocks of homes, businesses, libraries, hospitals, schools and churches were destroyed within 14 hours.
Survivors reported being rounded up at gunpoint, as airplanes dropped turpentine bombs on houses and the bodies of Black residents were thrown into the Arkansas River and into mass graves.
“Greenwood should have given me the chance to truly make it in this country, but in a few hours all of that was gone,” Ms Fletcher said.
“They murdered people,” said Ms Randle, now 106 years old. “I still see it today in my mind … I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses. By the grace of God, I am still here. I have survived. I have survived to tell this story. I believe I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now you all will listen to us while we are still here.”
In the aftermath of the massacre – later whitewashed as “riots” and largely ignored in American history lessons – Oklahoma declared a state of martial law, moved Black residents into internment camps and failed to prosecute a single person for any crime. In the decades that followed, survivors and the community were never paid restitutions or reparations for their losses.
Mr Van Ellis, now 100 years old, said he was taught “that when something is stolen from you, you go through the courts to be made whole ... to get justice.”
“This wasn’t the case for us,” he said. “We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice, that we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully Americans, that we were shown in the US that all men aren’t unequal under the law … we were shown that when Black voices call out for justice, no one hears.”
The three survivors are the lead plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit against the city and county of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma and Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce, arguing that the state and its economic centre are responsible.
A grave excavation project that researchers believe may be connected to the massacre began last year and will resume on 1 June.
“The white people who did this to us were filled with so much hate,” Ms Randle said.” It is disgusting that they hate us for no reason except that we are Black people. … 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 of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma and Tulsa Chamber of Commerce are still responsible for making it right.”
Dreisen Heath, a racial justice researcher and advocate with Human Rights Watch, told members of Congress that the massacre “remains a bloody stain that will continue to define this country until reparations are paid”.
“If we can’t fully account for one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the US, then who we are as a people, and what does this country actually stand for?” she said.
Greenwood advocates have argued that reparations must go beyond financial compensation, and recognise the need for transformational justice in Tulsa and across the US.
Advocates have called on Congress to study and understand the depth of destruction and its lingering impacts, from the loss of intergenerational wealth among survivors to the diaspora of Black families violently displaced by the massacre, and how it continues to ripple throughout Tulsa’s economic disparities today.
The hearing follows revived attempts among lawmakers towards a national reckoning over the compounded, generations-long impacts of slavery – and whether the US will formally recognise the need to redress its legacy, and apologise for it.
HR 40 would create a 13-member commission to study and hold hearings on the impacts of slavery and discrimination before issuing “appropriate remedies” to Congress, as well as the form of a national apology.
“I am tired. We are tired,” Ms Randle said. “I am asking you today for some peace. Please give me my family and community some justice.”
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