100 years later—commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre

The last living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre: Hughes Van Ellis, 100; Lessie Benningfeld Randle, 106; and Viola Ford Fletcher, 107. (photo by Valerie Fields Hill, courtesy of Texas Metro News)

On Tuesday, thousands from across the nation met in Tulsa, Oklahoma to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“It was very spiritual, very emotional,” said University of Texas at Arlington Adjunct Professor Pamela ‘Safisha’ Hill. Dr. Hill drove from her home in Dallas to participate in the week-long activities.

African Americans in Tulsa and their regional allies from neighboring states (including a handful of social activists) have long commemorated the two days in 1921 when mobs of White men shot Black fathers, mothers and children and bombed their homes and businesses, decimating the entire prosperous Greenwood District in Tulsa.

For years, the circumstances of the massacre remained out of Oklahoma school and history books and were largely obscured from historical societies’ documentation. The killings of the estimated 300 people, property bombings and looting were never criminally investigated by Oklahoma law authorities.

This year, the 100th anniversary of the massacre, Black Tulsans are joined by scores of White business owners, foundations and national corporations, who have poured millions of dollars into hosting commemorative lectures; sponsoring national discussions on race; building a Black Wall Street History Center; and putting on cultural and artistic events.

Lady Claudia Nelson, 71, has attended commemorative events in Tulsa for decades. None have been as extensive as this year’s slate, she said.

“It’s no longer a secret,” said Ms. Nelson, a retiree who drove alone to Tulsa late Thursday evening under severe and rainy conditions.

She was energized, she said, at the sheer size of the 2021 schedule of activities. “I saw vendors today. I saw stages. I’ve never seen that before.”

Nelson said expanded media coverage of national conversations regarding race, restitution and reparations for past social injustices likely contributed to rising interest in the circumstances surrounding the Tulsa Massacre.

“The media has been dynamic, It’s a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

This weekend’s commemorative activities included Hollywood actors and activists who are participating to raise awareness of the 1921 Race Massacre—and to lobby Oklahoma and Congress for restitution for survivors.

President Joe Biden was also in attendance on Tuesday, calling for a “month of action” to safeguard voting rights, using the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre to condemn a nationwide GOP effort to undermine equality at the ballot box.

Just two days earlier, Texas Democrats staged a dramatic walkout to stymie a historic voter suppression bill.

“This sacred right is under assault with an intensity and aggressiveness we have not seen in a long, long time,” Biden said. “It is simply un-American. It’s not, however, sadly, unprecedented.”

Biden didn’t call out Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Republicans in Tulsa, as he had Saturday when passage of the bill seemed imminent. But aides made clear that the uproar south of the Red River was on his mind.

Biden also said he has designated Vice President Kamala Harris as the administration’s point person on two controversial proposals in Congress to restore federal scrutiny of elections in states with a history of discrimination and to set national standards that would make the fight in Texas moot.

Three known Greenwood residents, Hughes Van Ellis, who is 100 years old; Lessie Benningfeld Randle, 106; and Viola Ford Fletcher, Mr. Ellis’ older sister, 107; are the last living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The three survivors rode in a horse-drawn carriage down North Greenwood Street on Friday, leading the community’s Black Wall Street Legacy Festival kick-off march.

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred over two days, May 31, 1921 through June 1, 1921, and resulted in the decimation of more than 1,400 homes and businesses in Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood District, which had become home to thousands of affluent Black residents and entrepreneurs.

On the evening of May 31, 1921, mobs of White men shot, beat and killed Black men, women and children. They looted their businesses and set fire to 36 blocks of homes, churches, theaters, banks, groceries and other property in the Greenwood District. By most accounts, up to 300 African Americans were killed and buried in mass graves. Thousands of Black Tulsans fled the city never to return.

The killings began when Sarah Page, a 17-year-old White elevator operator, accused Dick Rowland, 19, an African American shoe shiner, of “offending” her. She told police, according to media accounts, that Mr. Rowland had touched her, implying that she had been sexually assaulted.

Rowland was arrested and the city’s two newspapers, the morning edition of the Tulsa World and the afternoon edition of the Tulsa Tribune reported the incident and, according to African American historians, inflamed racial tensions. The Tribune reported that a lynching would occur on the night of May 31.

That night, scores of White men gathered at the city jail, became riled and some were deputized by the local police chief. For the next two days, the mobs set fires to structures and randomly shot and killed residents. Airplanes dropped bombs, survivors said, killing scores of residents and destroying the structures and buildings in the Greenwood District.

“It was a travesty,” Nelson said. “A war was declared on another people. It was declared on U.S. residents. It’s heart rendering to hear them describe that.” She added that she plans to attend the event every year until Oklahoma’s state government and federal government acknowledge the atrocity and pays reparations to survivors.

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