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Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Testify Before Congressional Subcommittee Ahead Of Centennial

U.S. House of Representatives
Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Viola Fletcher, 107, testifies before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Capitol on Wed., May 19, 2021.

The three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre testified before a Congressional subcommittee Wednesday, less than two weeks before the 100th anniversary of the racist attack. 

Viola Fletcher, 107, and her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 100, appeared before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in person at the U.S. Capitol. Lessie Benningfield "Mother" Randle, 106, appeared via videoconference.

"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house," Fletcher said. "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 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," Van Ellis, who also shared his experience as facing discrimination after returning from fighting in World War II, said through tears.

"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," Randle said.

The survivors and their advocates in Washington Wednesday called on Congress to help massacre survivors, victims and their descendants get meaningful compensation for ongoing harm caused by the massacre, which historians note was an act of state-sanctioned violence.

"We are coming to you," said attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, currently representing the survivors in a suit for compensation filed in Tulsa County District Court against entities including the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County and the Tulsa Regional Chamber. "I am coming to you in the name of my community, my people, my clients, asking that you do for us what this congress has done for the Japanese internment victims. What this congress has done for the 9/11 terrorism victims.

"We're asking to be treated as full human beings," Solomon-Simmons said. "We're asking to be treated [like] it's the belief in America that Dred Scott is not the law of the land, that the Black man does have rights that America must respect."

"This is not a matter of past traumas but concurrent traumatic experiences," testified Chief Egunwale Amusan, descendant of massacre survivors. "The plot to destroy the Black township of Greenwood was not a spontaneous act caused by a rumor in an elevator. It was premeditated, as well as racially and politically motivated."

"Reparations is simply making amends for a wrong. That is what we are asking for today," said Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, also a descendant of a massacre survivor.

Several witnesses testified in opposition to House Resolution 398, passed Tuesday, recognizing the upcoming centennial anniversary of the massacre, including former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon.

"While I am certainly thankful for the attention the resolution will bring to this reprehensible atrocity, much of the language leads me to suspect that there may be other motives for offering it," Shannon told the subcommittee.

"It does not honor the victims of that tragic day by seeking to further inflame racial divisions," Shannon said.

"This country is a land of systemic opportunity, it is not a land of systemic racism," Shannon said.

Clarence Henderson of the Frederick Douglass Foundation said financial compensation is not always the answer to racial disparities, but also that former President Donald Trump was inspired by the race massacre in developing policies.

"In every instance, where blacks have prospered and succeeded to the heights of business, academia, politics and more, it has been accomplished not because government threw money at perceived problems, but because our will to succeed was given the freedom to break down boundaries, and remove obstacles," Henderson testified.

"Given the atrocity of the Tulsa Race Massacre with lives, homes, businesses, and millions of dollars of black wealth destroyed, as well as mass incarcerations, the Trump administration enacted policies that focused on building up the black community," Henderson said. "The conservative policies instituted during the Trump Administration, namely, the First Step Act, funding for HBCU’s, Opportunity Zones, and the five billion dollar Platinum Plan is diametrically opposed with what occurred in 1921."

Democratic lawmakers at the hearing said they were supportive of some form of compensation for victims and survivors.

"Congress needs to step up," said subcommittee chair Rep. Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee. "Many of our witnesses have called for some form of reparations."

"One potential remedy that I find of particular interest is the idea of a victim compensation fund. This subcommittee has jurisdiction over such compensation funds. For example, last Congress we held a hearing to permanently reauthorize the 9/11 victim compensation fund, which one of our witnesses suggested is a model for compensating potential Tulsa claimants."

Referring to the massacre as an act of ethnic cleansing, House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, also said he would support some form of reparations, "with particular consideration given to the massacre's contribution to the racial and economic disparities that exist in Tulsa today."

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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