“I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”
Viola Fletcher, one of the three oldest living survivors of the gruesome Tulsa Rae Massacre that took place in 1921, gave the statement at a powerful congressional hearing on the 100-year-old case last month. This was one of the many statements made by the living survivors of one of the most sickening incidents of racial violence in American history. The three survivors recounted the atrocities that took place a century ago in their quiet, mostly-Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Viola Fletcher, 107 years old, testified before House Judiciary subcommittee members, calling for the US government to acknowledge the barbarity that happened on May 31, 1921.
“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire,” Fletcher recounted. “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.”
That fateful night
The day before one of the most horrific hate crimes occurred, a young Black teenager, Dick Rowland, rode an elevator at the Drexel Building on South Main Street with a young white elevator operator named Sarah Page. A few minutes after Rowland entered the elevator, Page screamed and the young man fled. Police arrested Rowland shortly after.
That afternoon, a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune reported that Rowland was arrested for sexual assault. Little did the Black community on this side of Tulsa know that a white mob was gathering outside the courthouse and demanding the sheriff to hand Rowland over to them. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused and asked his men to protect Rowland. That night, the white mob tried to break into the National Guard armory nearby but did not succeed.
As word about a possible lynching was circulating in the area, around 75 armed Black men went to the courthouse past 10 PM that evening. They were met by some 1,500 white men who carried weapons. As expected, chaos ensued and shots were fired everywhere. Outnumbered, the group of Black men retreated to Greenwood.
After the riot broke out, several groups of white men – some of whom were deputized to carry weapons – committed numerous acts of violence against the Black citizens of Greenwood. Hysteria grew, even more, when the armed white men believed a rumor about a large-scale insurrection among Black was happening. This led to thousands of white people pouring into the neighborhood, causing havoc in over 35 city blocks. Firefighters who were called to put out fires in the area later testified that they were threatened with guns.
The Red Cross estimated that around 1,200 homes were burned while establishments, including churches, schools, newspapers, hotels, and stores owned by Black citizens were destroyed. The National Guard and Governor J.B.A. Roberson declared martial law before noon, which ended the riot. It was reported that around 6,000 people were caught and brought to the local fairgrounds under the supervision of armed guardsmen.
Hours after the grisly incident, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped with the police concluding that the young Black teenager must have stumbled into the elevator operator or stepped on her foot. Reports have it that Rowland left Tulsa the next morning and never to be heard from ever again.
While Rowland might have gone somewhere to hide, the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics purported the Tulsa incident to have left 36 people dead, 26 of whom were Black while 10 were white. However, historians place the number killed at 300.
The blatantly targeted brutalizations of Black residents and utter devastation of the Black community in Tulsa makes the massacre one of the single deadliest crimes against Black Americans in the history of the United States.
While that shocking part of Tulsa’s history isn’t one that anyone can ever forget, there were no public ceremonies or memorials to commemorate what took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921. Those who can vividly remember that awful incident would say that there was a deliberate effort to cover up the truth. The Tulsa Tribune even removed the front-page story of the grim incident. Later on, scholars discovered that archives from the police and state militia were also missing. This is the reason why the Tulsa Race Massacre wasn’t mentioned in any book or taught in schools.
It was only on the massacre’s 75th anniversary in 1996 that a service was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which the rioters burned to the ground, and a memorial at the Greenwood Cultural Center. A year after, an official state government commission was formed to investigate the terrible incident that happened in 1921. Scientists and historians dug into Tulsa’s dark, morbid past and found photos of Black people lying on the streets while others were buried in unmarked graves.
A cry for justice
“I am 107 years old and have never seen justice. I pray that one day I will. I have been blessed with a long life — and have seen the best and worst of this country. I think about the terror inflicted upon Black people in this country every day,” Fletcher told the court.
Fletcher and her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle survived the tragedy and shared their stories with lawmakers. Van Ellis and Randle said their community wasn’t really able to rebuild and as survivors, they can still even see the aftermath of the disgusting incident. Van Ellis said, “We were left with nothing. We were made refugees in our own country.”
Randle, who is 106 years old, recounted how her community felt safe and happy before “everything changed.” Randle added, “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.”
The survivors said they could remember how terrified they were running out of their burning houses and past dead bodies. Randle said, “It wasn’t a pretty sight. I still see it today in my mind – 100 years later.”
In a live video, Randle told the lawmakers, “I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses. I have survived to tell this story. I believe that I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now you all will listen to us while we are still here.”
A representative of the Tulsa massacre survivors and North Tulsan native, Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, said that the Greenwood District, previously the wealthiest US black community of its time, has yet to recover as “35% of the Black community in Tulsa live in poverty” even after almost 100 years. Solomon-Simmons added, “Black people own homes 2 to 2½ times less than whites own their homes in Tulsa… Black unemployment is double that of whites. We can also talk about policing. Then there is a very specific, powerful, and obvious continuation of the nuisance and it’s the highway that they placed right through our community in 1967, that completely decimated whatever was left for the Greenwood community.”
The Oklahoma Commission published a report in 2001, stating that they found the city of Tulsa and the state responsible for the terrifying massacre and demanded that the Greenwood District be paid the reparations. A lawsuit was filed by civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran, Willie Gary, and Professor Charles Ogletree in 2005 in federal court for reparations. However, the case was junked by the federal court because, although they agreed that reparations were owed, the lawyers waited too long to file the case under the statute of limitations.
Now, Solomon-Simmons is taking the case to a higher court. He said, “The statute in Oklahoma is very powerful and it specifically states that there’s no statute of limitations on a public nuisance and gives us the ability to step into the shoes of the government and move this case forward.”