I was in eighth grade when I first learned about the terror inflicted on the lively and prosperous community of Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921.
I held back tears then, but I couldn’t earlier this month as I listened to Viola Ford Fletcher, now 107, testifying before Congress about that night. Her quiet dignity made me think of my own Mississippi grandmother.
“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street,” said Mother Fletcher, as she is known. “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…I’m here seeking justice, and I’m asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”
Greenwood was founded in 1906. A mere 15 years later, due to the economic brilliance of Black entrepreneurs working against all odds, the district had nightclubs, hotels, poolhalls, cafes, banks, newspapers, clothing shops, movie theaters, doctors’ and lawyers’ office and more. It was dubbed the Black Wall Street.
But beginning on the night of May 31 and stretching into the following day, a White mob attacked Black residents indiscriminately from both ground and air, killing up to 300 people, tossing bodies in mass graves and the Arkansas River, looting and then burning more than 1,000 homes, and destroying hundreds of businesses, including more than a dozen churches, two dozen grocery stores, 31 restaurants, a public library and schools.
“It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community and we couldn’t understand why,” said Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, another survivor who also testified. “I was so scared. I didn’t think we could make it out alive.”
Sixteen hours after the violent rampage began, the 35-square-block district lay smoldering and in ruins.
“They had made up their minds to clear the entire area of Black people,” Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, a survivor who died in 2018 at age 103, once told an interviewer.
Most of the district’s 10,000 Black residents were left homeless. Some had run businesses from their homes—barbershops or laundry services—and so their incomes were gone. Property damage was estimated at about $25 million to $100 million in today’s dollars. It is the deadliest outbreak of White terrorist violence against a Black community in American history.
“Because of the massacre, my family was driven from our home; we were left with nothing. We were made refugees in our own country,” testified survivor Hughes van Ellis, 100. “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.”
Survivors never received compensation for what they lost. Local insurance companies denied every claim submitted by Black businessowners. No one was arrested for the murders and destruction. In fact, a coverup began almost immediately.
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