What the Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Want

As an avalanche of commemoration events begin in Greenwood, the people who survived the attack await tangible forms of justice

Welcome to Run It Back, my newsletter about neglected black history. For the next couple of weeks I’ll be offering frequent dispatches from Tulsa as the city marks the centennial of the 1921 race massacre. I could use your help getting a wider audience for my work. Please share this issue or other dispatches with three people this week. It goes a long way.

“I’ve got a dream of going to Africa.”

Viola Fletcher had just been asked a simple question that she did not often hear from politicians and others who wield power in the state of Oklahoma: “What do you want?” Someone with influence and authority was asking Fletcher, who had lived for 106 years far away from any kind of spotlight, what she wanted for her own personal satisfaction and enjoyment. 

Fletcher was sitting at a long conference table at the River Spirit Casino Resort in Tulsa, next to Oklahoma state representative Regina Goodwin, who put forth the question. Goodwin had invited Fletcher to a viewing party for the virtual awards ceremony hosted by the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus on April 27. She was joined by her brother Hughes Van Ellis, age 100, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106. Surrounded by their children and grandchildren, the three were being honored as the last known living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

One of Fletcher’s earliest memories is being woken up by her parents on the night of May 31, 1921, in their modest home on the northern edge of Greenwood. Someone was running through the neighborhood, warning everyone to get out of town because black people were being killed in the streets. She and her five siblings, including her younger brother Van Ellis, were shuttled out of town by their parents on a covered wagon. They relocated to the nearby town of Claremore and did not return to Tulsa for years, leaving all their belongings to be burned or stolen. That placed them among the more than 715 black families who left Tulsa after the massacre, according to a 1922 Red Cross report. 

Fletcher says she saw neighbors’ bodies in the streets, smelled the smoke pouring from burning houses, and heard the roar of airplanes overhead, which eyewitnesses said were used to attack Greenwood. It was a sensory overload that remains with her a century later. She’s never slept quite as soundly since. “It kind of still bothers me,” she told me in an interview recently. “Seems like when I can't go to sleep, that comes across my mind."

Many people (including me) have been asking Fletcher to relive these experiences lately. As the oldest known living survivor of the massacre, she has become one of the centerpieces--along with Van Ellis and Randle--of an avalanche of commemorative articles, documentaries, panels, concerts, and public events that are being planned this week in Tulsa and around the nation. On May 19, Fletcher testified before Congress about the horrors she witnessed in Greenwood.

But that simplest of questions--”what do you want?”--is rarely asked. And Goodwin didn’t mean it rhetorically. As one of the state legislators representing Greenwood, her ties to the community run deep. Goodwin’s family moved to Greenwood in the 1910’s, and they saw much of their property destroyed during the massacre. A lawsuit against the city of Tulsa filed by her great-grandmother sought $76,000 in damages, but it stalled out in the courts. So a question like “what do you want?” has always been quite tangible for her.

She pressed again. “A trip? A book?” What was it that Fletcher could hold in her hands that could begin to account for what had happened to her?

Fletcher thought for a moment. She had spent an entire lifetime working. Picking cotton on the sharecropping farms of rural Oklahoma, cleaning the floors at segregated department stores, welding boats for the Allied troops in the Los Angeles shipyards during World War II, and working as a maid for rich white families in the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. In a world where Greenwood had been allowed to thrive, she might have had the opportunity to get an education and become a nurse. Instead, she left school after the fourth grade and worked into her 80’s, raising children and grandchildren all the while. It made sense that a vacation was in order, and she had always wanted to see Africa.  "That's where we're from, and all of our folks,” she told me. “I want to go there and see how well everybody is doing.”

Working with Tulsa S.T.E.P.S, a local non-profit that supports civic engagement and education programs in the city, Goodwin had quietly been working to collect donations to be distributed directly to the three survivors evenly on an ongoing basis. “I just think that the main folks we should be honoring are you all,” Goodwin told the survivors in the conference room. “I’m not interested in a building.”

When it comes to commemorating the race massacre, Tulsa is not lacking in money. The Greenwood Rising History Center, a new facility dedicated to “honoring the legacy of Black Wall Street before and after the Tulsa Race Massacre,” according to its website, has raised $30 million over the last five years. The center and its associated Race Massacre Centennial Commission have attracted donations from corporate backers such as Bank of America, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Warner Bros. Television Group, as well as a $1.5 million state budget appropriation. But none of this money has reached Fletcher, Van Ellis, or Randle. A reparations lawsuit against the city of Tulsa, in which the three are all plaintiffs, calls for a portion of this money to be placed in a compensation fund for massacre survivors and their descendants. “If that kind of money is being raised, then I think it's fair to share it with the survivors,” Fletcher told me. “The people that were harmed, you should share with them.”

Goodwin did not have $30 million to share with the massacre survivors that day. Her donation drive to that point had raised a bit less than $5,000. But it was a start. Cindy Driver and Lanetta Lyons of Tulsa S.T.E.P.S. awarded each survivor an initial check of $1,580, along with a copy of the 1962 poem “O Greenwood!” by massacre survivor Wynonia Murray Bailey. “Looks like I’m going to Africa,” Fletcher said with a smile. Van Ellis, who also served in World War II as a soldier in an all-black battalion overseas, said he hoped to visit Spain one day (Randle arrived later and was also awarded a check).

"It was nice to receive,” Fletcher told me later. “I've never received that much money."

Pictured left to right: Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis, Viola Fletcher

After the checks were handed out, the survivors got to enjoy the awards ceremony. Each of them had been interviewed about their live for the virtual program, and they earned excited applause from the crowd of family admirers whenever they appeared on the big screen. Van Ellis earned the biggest cheer when he was asked by an interviewer whether he’d prefer to have justice or reparations and responded, “I’d like to have both.”

The highlight of the evening came at the end of all the presentations, when Lessie Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis got to speak for the first time. The three of them had never before been in the same room. They were bound together by tragedy, but also by resilience.

“Ms. Randle, that’s Ms. Fletcher,” Goodwin said, as the two women sat across the conference table from each other. “She’s 106 years old. You’re 106 years old. Can you imagine that?”

“Well,” Randle said, “You don’t look a day over 50.” The two women laughed. It was a moment of connection after lifetimes that had been marked by the ultimate disruption.

More money could soon be heading the survivors’ way. Goodwin says pledged donations for her drive have now reached $16,000. Earlier this month a group of Tulsa faith leaders announced their intention to raise $100,000 for massacre survivors via donations. Fletcher also participated in a recent press conference organized by her legal team again calling on the city to divert some of the money being raised for Greenwood Rising toward the massacre survivors and descendants. With millions of eyes on Tulsa this weekend, support may also emerge from unexpected places. Her grandson Ike Howard has spoken of grander aspirations, of buying property and establishing generational wealth that was curtailed by the massacre. But those sorts of dreams will depend on what happens next. 

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