What is justice? The Tulsa Massacre 100 years on


"We lost everything that day. Our homes. Our churches. Our newspapers. Our theaters. Our lives. Greenwood represented the best of what was possible for Black people in America – and for all people. No one cared about us for almost 100 years. We, and our history, have been forgotten, washed away. This Congress must recognize us, and our history. For Black Americans. For white Americans. For all Americans. That’s some justice.”

In May, Viola Fletcher testified before a congressional committee on the terror which befell the African American community in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The seven-minute account chronicled the ”culture, community, and heritage” that made the neighbourhood a haven for Africa-Americans and the massacre that occurred on the night of the 31st May, 1921. 

At 107 years old, Fletcher is the oldest survivor of the massacre. Her testimony was accompanied by statements from Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, and Fletcher’s younger brother Hughes Van Ellis, 100, who was an infant at the time. What is clear is that even in old age these memories will never depart, and how could they? Still vivid and impactful, the act itself was only further compounded by the outright neglect that followed the massacre. 

“We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice. That we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully American. We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under the law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.“

Hughes Van Ellis, testifying before congress, May 2021

Oklahoma’s reputation as a hub for Black settlement after the civil war afforded its residents a degree of security otherwise lacking elsewhere. In Greenwood, African-American entrepreneurship would thrive, constructing a beacon of Black prosperity that earned the district the moniker "Black Wall Street." By the time a white mob had cleared its way through the neighbourhood and the act of terror was over, nearly 50 square blocks lay decimated, this beacon of hope diminished. 


Generational Cost

“I went to bed in my family’s home in the Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa. . . . Within a few hours, all of that was gone. The night of the Massacre I was woken up by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave. And that was it.” - Viola Fletcher, testifying before Congress, May 2021

Historians estimate the mob killed as many as 300 black people with a further 10,000 displaced and made homeless following a night of looting, arson, and even aerial assault. The magnitude of the damage has meant that the impact of that act is still felt today. Property damage directly resulting from the massacre is thought to be north of $200 million in today's money.

A 2018 paper from Chris M. Messer, Thomas E. Shriver and Alison E. Adams also links the massacre to stifling Black innovation, wiping out the accumulated wealth of countless Black Tulsians and stymieing the community’s economic prospects for the future. This is without mentioning the victims' bodies, which are still being discovered, and the work on locating other burial sites, which is still ongoing.

Though we frequently focus on systemic failings, the reality is that America's past and present contain episodes of anti-blackness so horrific that hopelessness is entirely understandable. Yet, the survivors of the Tulsa massacre have persisted in their demand for recognition and justice.

I am 107 years old and have never seen justice. I pray that one day I will. 

Viola Fletcher, calling on the U.S. to acknowledge the massacre, May 2021

The Tulsa Race Riot Commission appeared to have established the framework for some compensation in 2001. Appointed by the Oklahoma legislature, the four-year investigation resulted in the following recommendations:

  1. Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot. 
  2. Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot. 
  3. A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa Race Riot. 
  4. Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood District. 
  5. A memorial for the reburial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of riot victims. 

Nearly two decades later, progress has been slow, with survivors of the massacre losing faith in some local authorities. There were 121 survivors alive at the time of the original publication in 2001, compared to only three today.

Human Rights Watch briefing paper detailed the criticisms levelled at city and state officials since the inquiry. Among these are efforts that are centred on the Centennial Commission's events in the run up to 100 year commemoration. It is suggested that these initiatives are being prioritised over adequate consultation with survivors or descendants, while a lack of "effective outreach" and alleged "community distrust" are also cited. This disenfranchisement has seen one of the survivors, Lennie Benningfield Randle, prohibit the commission from using her name or likeness to promote the states centennial project while Violet Fletcher echoed similar discontent last month. 

In her statement to Congress Fletcher said: "To this day, I can barely afford my everyday needs. All the while the City of Tulsa have unjustly used the names and stories of victims like me to enrich itself and its White allies through the $30 million raised by the Tulsa Centennial Commission while I continue to live in poverty." 

The arrival of the centenary year has brought hope that Congress will act where Tulsa and Oklahoma authorities have failed, as popular support grows for credible change. The Washington Post has called for Congress to enact legislation allowing the massacre victims to pursue legal claims against Tulsa and Oklahoma in federal court. The Human Rights Watch are also pushing for authorities to consult with affected community members and develop a “comprehensive” reparations plan.

A week on from remembering George Floyd, Americans are once more faced with the unsettling question of what truly constitutes justice. From a UK perspective, the dithering, and counterintuitive response to a clear case of injustice bears some uneasy parallels with the Windrush scandal closer to these shores. On the ground, the remaining survivors and descendants of the massacre victims continue to campaign for acknowledgement and justice. However it finally arrives, It will be long overdue.

“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait. . . . Others have told us it’s too late. It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people. And we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right." - Lessie Benningfield Randle, testifying before congress, May 2021


Mayowa Ayodele


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