Recognizing the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre with Survivors' Powerful Accounts

“I have lived through the massacre every day,” said Viola Fletcher, 107, of the racist violence that killed as many as 300 people. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”

viola fletcher; Hughes Van Ellis
Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images; JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

There are just three known survivors left of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — but between them, they've now had 300 years total to reflect on the horrors and trauma that the infamous night wrought upon them.

Though the massacre, which historians believe may have killed as many as 300 people, has not received nearly as much attention as other historical events in the U.S., it was a devastating turning point for Tulsa, specifically the city's Greenwood District, which was often called "Black Wall Street" for its affluent African-American business district.

Trouble broke out on May 30, 1921, when a young Black man named Dick Rowland took an elevator ride alongside a white woman named Sarah Page, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

Though details of what exactly happened remain unclear, "exaggerated" accounts of an incident began to spread among Tulsa's white residents, and Rowland was arrested the next day (his charges were later dismissed). His arrest then led to an "inflammatory" report in the Tulsa Tribune, which sparked a confrontation between Black and white armed mobs outside the local courthouse, according to the historical society.

Tulsa Race Massacre
Aftermath of the Greenwood community following the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

At one point, shots were fired, and in the early hours of June 1, as the Black residents headed back to Greenwood, white rioters looted and burned the area, forcing Black people to escape their homes and take refuge at places like the Fairgrounds — some for more than a week.

The violence ended about 24 hours later, but when all was said and done, 35 city blocks were destroyed by fire, more than 800 people were injured and 36 people were dead, though historians now believe the number to be in the hundreds. No one was ever prosecuted or punished for the murders, the historical society said.

Though an official Race Riot Commission was organized in 2001, and several lawsuits against the city and the state have been filed, the harrowing details of the tragic night live on in testimonies from survivors like Viola Fletcher, her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, all of whom testified before Congress on May 19.

Here are some of the survivors' most powerful recollections.

Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre
Viola Fletcher. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Now 107 years old, Viola Fletcher is the oldest living survivor. Just 7 years old when the massacre changed the course of her life, she testified that before that fateful night, she felt "safe" and happy living in Greenwood, believing she had "a bright future ahead."

Greenwood should have given me the chance to truly make it in this country, when a few hours all of that was gone. The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it. I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home… When my family was forced to leave Tulsa, I lost my chance at an education. I never finished school past the fourth grade.

I still see Black men being shot and Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not. And other survivors do not, and our descendants do not.

For 70 years, the city of Tulsa and this chamber of commerce told us that the massacre didn't happen, like we didn't see it with our own eyes. You have me here right now. We live this history and we can't ignore it. We lost everything that day — our homes, our churches, our newspapers, our theaters, our lives. Greenwood represented all the best of what was possible for Black people in America, for all the people. No one cared about us for almost 100 years. We and our history have been forgotten, washed away.

Hughes Van Ellis
Hughes Van Ellis. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Hughes Van Ellis, known as "Uncle Red," is Viola's 100-year-old brother who testified alongside her. A World War II veteran, he served in an all-Black unit in the Army in the China Burma India Theater.

Because of the massacre, my family was driven out of our home. We were left with nothing. We were laid refugees in our own country. My childhood was hard and we didn't have much. We worried what little we had would be stolen from us just like it was stolen in Tulsa.

I fought for freedom abroad even though it was ripped away from me at home. My home and my community were destroyed. It's because I believe in the end America would get this right. When I returned home from the war, I didn't find any of this freedom I was fighting for overseas. Unlike white servicemen, I wasn't entitled to GI Bill benefits because of the color of my skin.

Hughes Van Ellis
Hughes Van Ellis. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Even at this age of 100, the Tulsa Race Massacre is a footnote in the history books for us. We live with it every day, and the thought of what Greenwood was and what it could have been. We aren't just black and white pictures on a screen. We are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I'm still here. My sister was there when this happened. She is still here.

Lessie Benningfield Randle was 6 years old and living with her grandmother in Greenwood when the massacre took place. She said in her testimony that her "beautiful Black community" allowed her to feel safe, and that she grew up in a home with toys and love.

Then everything changed. It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn't understand why. What did we do to them? We didn't understand. We were just living. But they came and they destroyed everything. They burned houses and businesses. They just took what they wanted out of the building, then they burned the building. They murdered people. We were told they just dumped the dead bodies into the river.

I remember running outside of our house. I just passed dead bodies. It wasn't a pretty sight. I still see it today in my mind 100 years later. I was so scared, I didn't think we could make it out alive. I remember people were running everywhere. We waited for the soldiers to come, and when they finally came, they took us to the fairground where we would be safe. It felt like so long before they came.

Tulsa Race Massacre
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Kinney Booker was 8 years old when his mother, sister and brothers were forced to crouch in the attic of their Tulsa home as white intruders barged in, calling his father the N-word and asking if he had a gun, Booker told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. Their house was set on fire and the family had to escape, though they were eventually reunited with their patriarch, who survived.

Going to the convention hall, that was a horrible thing — not knowing whether my father was dead or alive… It really devastated us. My father had worked so hard for what we had.

I'm doing my best to try to forgive what happened, but it's difficult.

George Monroe was also a child at the time, and told the Oklahoma Education Television Authority in 1999 that he, his mother and his siblings were home when they spotted four white men with burning torches in their hands coming up their front walk.

When my mother saw them coming, she says, "You get up under the bed. Get up under the bed, get up under the bed." And all of four of us got up under the bed. I was the last one and my sister grabbed me and pulled me under there and while I was under the bed, one of the guys coming past the bed stepped on my finger and I was about to scream. My sister put her hand over my mouth so I couldn't be heard. Now I remember that.

Eldoris McCondichie never spoke about what she witnessed as a child — when she was forced to hide in a chicken coop — because she felt as though she needed to look forward. She also did not ask her family any questions, she told the Los Angeles Times and the Oklahoma Education Television Authority in 1999. McCondichie died in 2010.

I was asleep and my mother awakened me and she told me to get up so she could dress me. She says, "Eldoris, get up so I can get you dressed! The white folks are killing the colored folks." And I thought when she said that, I jumped up and I thought that we were just being lined up and ambushed like that. But anyway in looking out the door, I could see nothing but black rolling smoke.

Binkley Wright, who was 11 at the time, said he and his family lost everything they owned that night. He was involved in the riot after he and some friends were asked to stand on the steps of Paradise Baptist Church and load and reload guns for the human chain of Black defenders trying to protect the city, he told the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in 2000.

Everything that we owned was burned to the ground. What I miss most were the family photos that we had in our house. My father had lots of photographs of family in our house, and those can never be replaced.

The shotguns and rifles those Black men had could not compete with those machine guns. But those brave men sure did try to save North Tulsa and me and my buddies sure did our part to help them. We used hatchets to open the boxes of ammunition that the jitneys had brought in earlier, and we kept those guns loaded and reloaded, and we kept that assembly going… But it was all in vain. Those brave Black men were outnumbered, and they were picked off by the white mobs and by the guardmen in uniform who were firing those machine guns.

Beulah Lane Keenan Smith, who was 13, told the Greenwood Culture Center that mobsters kicked a hole in the side of her family's store and set it aflame, altering the course of her life forever.

That was the saddest day of my life. That riot cheated us out of childhood innocence. My life dreams were destroyed too by that riot. In fact, I had made up my mind to become a school teacher when I grew up. But that riot put an end to that. We lost everything in the riot, and I had to drop out of school to work and help with family support. Not only did I not become a school teacher, I was not able to even finish high school! What a loss that was to Tulsa and to society. I had such a calling for the teaching profession, and I had such a love for learning and for teaching. I know in my heart that I would have been a good teacher.

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