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101 years on, Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and descendants are still fighting for long-delayed justice

Viola Fletcher (foreground), 108, and Hughes Van Ellis (in wheelchair at left), 101, at the Tulsa County Courthouse on May 2, 2022. Fletcher, Van Ellis, and 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle are the last known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Chris Polansky / KWGS News
Viola Fletcher (foreground), 108, and Hughes Van Ellis (in wheelchair at left), 101, at the Tulsa County Courthouse on May 2, 2022. Fletcher, Van Ellis, and 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle are the last known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The memory and effects of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are still felt around this city more than a century after the racist attack on Greenwood, community leaders here said during anniversary events this week.

One year after the massacre's centennial drew dignitaries, civil rights leaders, the international media and even the president of the United States to North Tulsa for commemoration events, descendants and survivors this week said some progress has been made — but there remains much left undone.

"As we talk about when all the cameras were here, and everybody was talking about the centennial — the work was going on before then and continues on afterwards," said Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Democrat who represents North Tulsa and who herself is the descendant of a race massacre survivor.

At the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, community members, national thinkers and elected officials shared the many ways the harms of the massacre persist today for Black Tulsans, including in the areas of mental health, land ownership, generational wealth and more.

"Even where we sit today, if we remember — just last year was the first time that a president even said that this happened," said Tulsa licensed professional counselor Dwayne Mason Jr., during a panel discussion on generational trauma and community healing. "We all are affected by it, regardless of whether we are descendants or not. We're affected by living here in Tulsa, Oklahoma."

"We have so many descendants, direct descendants, and a lot of us have loved ones that have been thrown into mass graves. We don't know where they are," said Kristi Williams of the Greater Tulsa Area African-American Affairs Commission and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee.

"The grief is real," Mason said. "That's one thing as far as the generational trauma. If they didn't necessarily know where their loved ones were buried or taken, how can we necessarily grieve properly?"

"This is the last of Greenwood land, and God, as they say, ain't making no more of it," said District 1 Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper during a discussion on rebuilding Greenwood through land development projects. "So we can not afford to let these opportunities pass us by and let cities like Tulsa maintain the status quo."

Hall-Harper said she was only interested in pursuing proposals that would center Black property ownership, but noted that affirmative action in Oklahoma was outlawed by state question in 2012.

"I'm going to call it out: The reason we have to play these games is because of racism in this state. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tulsa is the most racist city in this country, Oklahoma is the most racist state in this country," Hall-Harper said.

The attack by white Tulsans on the thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood — known then, and now, as "Black Wall Street" — began on May 31, 1921, and spanned into the next day, June 1. It left as many as 300 Black Tulsans dead and the neighborhood almost entirely razed. As a result, the act of generational wealth transfer was all but impossible for most of Black Tulsa, with policies such as redlining in subsequent decades making it even harder.

Some speakers highlighted areas of positive change for massacre survivors and descendants, and Tulsa's Black community more broadly.

"By God's grace, we worked with a bipartisan effort — we were able to bring some $1.5 million, as of last night, for scholarships that are now going to be going forward for descendants, for the impacted community, and those that want to preserve the community," said Rep. Goodwin of a legislative effort she spearheaded this past session.

"We have been given a grant in partnership with Maestra, an organization in Brooklyn," said Sheyda Brown, deputy director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation in Tulsa. "It's a Black-owned, women-owned organization, and they have granted the Terence Crutcher Foundation funds to help repair and restore three descendants' homes this year. So we are very excited to announce that today."

At a luncheon honoring the three known living survivors of the massacre — 101-year-old Hughes Van Ellis, 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, and 108-year-old Viola Fletcher — Jeffery Robinson, creator of the Who We Are Project, reflected on both what philanthropists have done for survivors and what the community has done for the country.

"There are three survivors in this room, descendants in this room, relatives, friends and community supporters, who refuse to let America forget what happened here, who are making sure that there is a remembrance, a reckoning and a redress for what happened here 101 years ago, and your efforts are reflecting all across America, and I thank this community for this effort," Robinson said.

Robinson recounted reading about New York philanthropists giving $1,000,000 to the three known living survivors earlier this month.

"So that these three survivors can have some economic peace at this point in their lives," Robinson said. "And that is incredible, it is moral, it is ethical, it is justified — but don't confuse philanthropy with justice, because they are not the same thing."

Reparations were a frequent source of discussion throughout the festival programming. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a white Republican, has expressed disapproval at the idea of direct monetary reparations to survivors and descendants.

"In Tulsa, we have our own reparations fight. Right now, those same excuses [against reparations] are being communicated by our mayor... . What parallels do you see between our issues and the larger movement for reparations for the legacy of slavery?" asked activist Dr. Tiffany Crutcher of professor, New York Times journalist and 1619 Projectcreator Nikole Hannah-Jones during a Tuesday evening talk at Booker T. Washington High School.

"The most successful strategy against reparations has been 'delay until death,'" Hannah-Jones said. "So when people say, 'You don't deserve reparations because [there's] nobody alive today who was in slavery,' well, people who were in slavery tried to get reparations, you waited until they all died, and then you said, 'There's nobody alive.'"

"So this is what they've done, of course, with the victims of Tulsa, right? They've waited until almost everyone is gone, and then when the last three survivors are gone, they'll say, 'Well, we don't have to pay now because there's no victims who actually experienced that,'" Hannah-Jones said.

"But the debt does not go away," Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones said she was glad to be visiting Tulsa on the anniversary of the race massacre both because "you can't understand Tulsa [and the massacre] and not understand Black America," and the fact that her scholarship centering the Black experience in the United States has come under fire from powerful, mostly white Republicans in Oklahoma.

"They don't want you to learn your local history, they don't want you to learn your national history, because once you understand that history, it's like taking the red pill in 'The Matrix,'" Hannah-Jones said. "You see how the system is built, and you know the code to destroy it."

Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, currently leading a lawsuit for restitution against the city, the state, and other entities on behalf of survivors and descendants, said the white mob of 1921 had failed at their main objective.

"Because literally, the stated goal of the Tulsa Race Massacre was to 'run the Negro out of Tulsa,'" Solomon-Simmons said. "To completely eradicate our existence here. Yet here we are. And we're not just here — we're still fighting."

Tulsa community organizer Greg Robinson, no relation to Jeffery, invoked recent tragedies in a call to action against senseless violence, some of it racist in nature.

"As we reflect on what happened in Buffalo, as we reflect on what happened in Uvalde, as we reflect on what happened here in Tulsa — inaction has never led to action," said Robinson. "Inaction has always led to worse things occurring. And so it has never been and it never will be that the pursuit of justice is a spectator sport. It's not."

In a moment of prayer, the Rev. Keith R. Mayes Sr. of Greenwood's Historic Vernon AME Church asked God for justice yet to be realized.

"Father, we love you and we trust you, but our plea and petition is that — not just on streets paved with gold, God, not just in the sweet by-and-by, God, we want to see justice. We want to see reparations," Mayes said.

"God, we want to see not just a storied past, but God, we want to experience a bright right now and an even brighter future," Mayes said. "God, we're still yet asking, 'How long? How much longer?'"

"God, it's our belief," Mayes said, "that 101 years is long enough."

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.