Tulsa, Oklahoma – The three known survivors of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., in which white mobs gunned down Black people in the streets and Black-owned businesses were burned to the ground, appeared before a congressional committee on Wednesday, arguing that justice was far overdue.
On June 1, a day that is rarely mentioned in history textbooks, the neighborhood of Greenwood, home to a business district known as Black Wall Street, was destroyed by a white mob. The mob looted and set fire to the businesses, and historians estimate up to 300 people were killed, 8,000 left homeless, 23 churches burned and more than 1,200 homes destroyed.
Viola Ford Fletcher, 107, said she still remembered seeing the Black men being shot and bodies in the street, could smell the smoke and hear the screams. She was 7 at the time.
Hughes Van Ellis, Ms. Fletcher’s 100-year-old younger brother, said the survivors had been made to feel that they were “unworthy of justice, that we were less valued than whites.”
Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, said while testifying remotely by video at Wednesday’s hearing that as a 6-year-old girl she didn’t think she would make it out of the attacks alive
The survivors are among the plaintiffs who have sued the city of Tulsa, claiming the city and the Chamber of Commerce tried to cover up the attacks and distort the narrative of what had happened, deflecting blame onto the Black victims and depicting them as instigators. They seek punitive damages, tax relief and scholarships for survivors and their descendants, along with priority for Black Tulsans in awarding city contracts.
The attacks were sparked when a Black man, Dick Rowland, was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, Sarah Page, on May 30, 1921. Hundreds of armed white men gathered outside the courthouse where Mr. Rowland was being held, and a group of armed Black men arrived to prevent a lynching. After a shot was fired, the white mob chased the Black men to Greenwood.
A grand jury blamed the Black men for the riots. No one was ever charged with a crime for the riots.
Mr. Rowland was later exonerated and charges against him were dropped, as the authorities concluded he most likely tripped and stepped on the woman’s foot.