Fletcher, her 100-year-old brother, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, and a third survivor, 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, appeared before the subcommittee to push for reparations for one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.
All three are lead plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit filed last year against the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the state of Oklahoma and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. The lawsuit argues that Oklahoma and Tulsa are responsible for what happened during the massacre, which historians believe left as many as 300 Black people dead, 10,000 homeless and the all-Black community of Greenwood destroyed.
Dressed in a mint-green blazer and speaking in a strong, clear voice, Fletcher told the story of what happened in Tulsa as the city prepares to mark the massacre’s 100th anniversary at the end of this month.
“On May 31, of ‘21, I went to bed in my family’s home in Greenwood," she said. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture … and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future.”
“Within a few hours,” Fletcher said, “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,” she said, “I still see Black men being shot, 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.”
Lawmakers and others rose to give her a standing ovation when she finished testifying.
Her brother, a 100-year-old World War II veteran, broke into tears as he told the subcommittee how he fought for the United States overseas but had not received justice in his own country.
"Please do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors,” Ellis said.
Randle, 106, testified virtually from Tulsa, recalling how safe and loved she felt as a 6-year-old living with her grandmother in Greenwood. “Then everything changed. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them?"
The White mob killed Black Tulsans and burned Black-owned homes and businesses. “We were told they just dumped dead bodies into the river,” Randle said. “I remember being outside of our house. I passed dead bodies."
"I still see it, in my mind, 100 years later. … I have survived to tell this story,” she told the lawmakers. “I believe I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, you all will listen to us while we are still here.”
The massacre began on the evening of May 31, 1921, when a White mob descended on Greenwood, shooting Black people indiscriminately and burning more than 1,200 homes, hundreds of Black-owned businesses, churches, schools and a Black-owned hospital. Some survivors saw airplanes dropping turpentine bombs on houses.
After more than 48 hours of carnage, 35 square blocks of Greenwood were destroyed. When the massacre ended on June 1, 1921, according to historians and witness accounts, hundreds of survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to march to camps, where they were held for weeks until White people vouched for them. According to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s 2001 report, many were forced to labor without pay. Survivors also recounted seeing Black bodies dumped into the Arkansas River and into mass graves.
“The city police department and the county sheriff’s office deputized and armed white Tulsans to murder, loot, and burn the nearly 40 city blocks of the Greenwood District,” according to the reparations lawsuit. “The State National Guard participated with this angry white mob in killing and looting and destroying the property of Black residents of Greenwood. The city, sheriff, chamber, and county targeted Black community leaders and victims of the massacre for prosecution as instigators of the massacre — despite knowing who were truly responsible.”
Viola Fletcher was born May 5, 1914, in Comanche, a small town on the rolling prairie of southwestern Oklahoma, about 190 miles from Tulsa. She had four brothers and three sisters. Fletcher was the second oldest of the children.
Before moving the family to Tulsa, her parents were sharecroppers. “They raised cotton, corn, vegetables," she recalled during a 2014 interview with the Oklahoma Oral History Research program and the Oklahoma State University College of Human Sciences.
Their house had no electricity. “My first doll was a rag doll," she recalled. "Then, your parents made your doll out of material.”
Her family fled Tulsa during the massacre but eventually returned. In 1932, she married her husband, Robert, and the couple moved to California to work in the shipyards during World War II.
“I was an assistant welder,” she said. “I helped welders lay the slab of steel to build the ship.”
After the war, she and her husband returned to Oklahoma, where they raised their three children — two boys and one girl — in Bartlesville, a small town near the Kansas border. Fletcher worked cleaning houses, while her husband worked as a truck driver and at a filling station.
Fletcher said she worked until she was 85. “I got tired,” she recalled. “I didn’t have to come and clean houses anymore. I owned my own home and bought my own cars.”
She said she never let racism stop her. “No, it never bothered me at all,” Fletcher said. “I’m Black and I’m proud. … We are just as important as everybody else. … We have the same red blood as other people, the same faith and the same life.”
For nearly 100 years, said Dreisen Heath, a researcher and racial justice advocate at Human Rights Watch, “the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma watched survivors die one by one while denying their culpability and resisting paying reparations recommended by the state legislature.”
Heath said it is important that the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hear from and acknowledge the last survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre while they are still living.
“It brings tears to my eyes to think about the thousands of people who have died waiting for justice," said Heath, who wrote the Human Rights report “Reparations for Tulsa."
Fletcher, she said, is a legend at 107 years old. “She has many stories to tell,” Heath said, "and also a story of denied justice.”
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