The Tulsa Race Massacre Is Finally Getting Attention — 100 Years Later

By Janae Bradford

White mobs killed 300 Black residents and destroyed about 1,000 homes, churches, businesses and other institutions in the Black Wall Street during the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The United States is filled with untold history especially, when it comes to the history of Black people. One horrific event is embedded in the memories of those fighting for justice and accountability of an incident from 100 years ago. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 drastically affected not only Black people, but also the entire state of Oklahoma. To this day, the people of Tulsa and those who care about the cause are pushing to increase awareness of the massacre and further explain its relevance in American history. 

Tensions rose in the city when a young Black man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. After he was arrested and sent to the courthouse, Black and white people gathered to either protect him or lynch him, respectively.

Once the Black people realized they were outnumbered, they fled to their homes. The white mob followed with their weapons, killing 300 African Americans and destroying the Greenwood community known as Black Wall Street for the next two days from May 31 to June 1, 1921.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” survivor Viola Fletcher, 107, told Congress. “I still see Black men being shot and black bodies lying in the street.”

Fletcher, who was 7 years old at the time, made her first trip to Washington, D.C., recently with her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and a third survivor, Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, 106, to seek reparations for the lifelong suffering by testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. That meeting held so much power and emotions as people listened to the embedded pain in the victims’ testimonies. Not a day goes by when this event isn’t on their minds.

“I had everything a child could need, and I had a bright future ahead of me,” Fletcher testified. “Within a few hours, all of that was gone.”

“I still smell smoke,” she said. “I hear the screams, and I have lived through the massacre every day. My country may forget, but I cannot and I will not and other survivors do not and our descendants do not.”

One of those descendants is Pamela Ballard, a lifelong Oklahoma native whose grandparents were alive during the time of the attack.

“Unfortunately, it was one of many acts of terrorism perpetrated by white society that we will probably never receive true retribution for,” Ballard said in an interview for HUNewsService.com. “The criminals and their descendants continue to profit from the violence and terror of that day while victims and their lineage are left with trauma, stolen wealth and constant reminders of what could have been.”

Olivia Hooker, who lived to see 103, still remembered seeing an angry mob of local white people walking through her yard to break into her family’s home. In a 2019 interview with NPR before she died, she talked about how they destroyed any and everything they could get their hands on as she hid under a table with the rest of her family.

At 6 years old, Hooker received a rude awakening of the deep hatred within her hometown. As a result of the attack, many were forced to leave town or reside in concentration camps on their own land. 

For people like Fletcher and Hooker who experienced this trauma at a very young age, it never made sense why a community of unbothered people would be attacked in such a brutal way with the help of police. It was a very difficult way to be shown how society is divided by something as simple as skin color.

This wasn’t the first race massacre, but it definitely was one of the largest and most brutal in American history. To white people like those in Tulsa, Black success was a threat and still poses one to this day.

Black massacres from the 1800s to the present. (Map: Jordan Engel/Decolonial Atlas)

Everlasting Suffering

When it came to identifying perpetrators and victims of the massacre, there was much more silence than accountability. Eric Stover, co-producer of the new PBS documentary “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” explained how Oklahoma and the national government disregarded the needs of those who suffered. He noted that around the time of the attack, it was very difficult to identify the few bodies that were sent to morgues, because so many people weren’t around to provide the victims’ names.

Today’s highways and buildings were built on top of the bones of victims. The Black community of Tulsa asked for bodies to be dug up so some part of justice can finally be served. After the massacre, trucks drove around town collecting dead bodies to be buried in mass graves across the city. For a century, people wondered, where are those graves and why wasn’t an effort made to identify the victims?  

But the city ignored this request, denied people who immediately asked for reparations after the riot and eliminated records telling the truth behind that day, Stover said. Efforts are finally being made to locate and identify the missing bodies.

“All the while, the city of Tulsa has 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,” Fletcher told Congress.

Greg Robinson II, a Tulsa descendant and local leader, said that he will always be proud of his community for constantly rebuilding itself, but that he knows the fight for justice is far from over. May 31 will always hold weight for the Black community of Oklahoma.

Robinson and many other Black Tulsans struggle mentally to move forward. They feel that the country as a whole isn’t improving and that many Americans won’t steer away from a white supremacy mindset. Some also cite the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as an example.

If it wasn’t for technology spreading the word about the Tulsa massacre, many people still wouldn’t know that it ever happened. In this day and age, creatives are using entertainment outlets to inform people of such events. Some find it educating while others find it traumatizing even if the creators’ intentions are good. It took fictional shows such as “The Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country” to spark curiosity among some people.

Actor Hill Harper is among those who are trying to educate people about the adversities Black people face financially, especially the ones in Tulsa. Harper plans to launch a digital wallet, or as he called it “a Black Cash App” that mimics the financial success of the Black Wall Street in 1921 to help close the racial wealth gap and build generational wealth.

Armed white men descend upon the Greenwood district during the two-day Tulsa Race Massacre. (Photo: Tulsa Historical Society and Museum)

Late Justice Is Better Than No Justice

If anyone knows what real justice would look like for the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, it’s Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin. She is also a descendant of people who worked for businesses in Greenwood. Goodwin has used this traumatic incident as motivation to bring about change in her community.

“As folks talk about supporting, justice is for Ms. Lessie Benningfield Randle, Mr. Hughes Van Ellis and Ms. Viola Fletcher; they’re living right now,” Goodwin said. “Give them some money. … There’s so many different ways of what justice looks like.”

“What are we doing in terms of apprenticeships and internships and loans for businesses that are already established? Let’s get those businesses up. For all the newer businesses let’s provide loans.”

Very few historical texts cover similar race massacres in predominantly Black communities such as Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Rosewood, Florida. Who knows how many other stories like that never saw the light of day or any form of justice?

“We lost everything that day — homes and churches and newspapers and theaters,” Fletcher recalled. “Greenwood represented what was possible for Black people in America. No one cared about us for almost 100 years.”

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