The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three survivors of Tulsa Race Massacre receive $1 million donation

From left, Tulsa Race Massacre survivors Hughes Van Ellis Sr., Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher, wave and high-five supporters from a horse-drawn carriage before a march in Tulsa on May 28, 2021. The three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are receiving a $1 million donation from a New York philanthropic organization. They will share the donation. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
4 min

The last known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre received a $1 million donation Wednesday from a philanthropic organization — a substantial sum for the three centenarians more than 100 years after White mobs destroyed their community.

Viola Fletcher, 108, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, and Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, 102, accepted the donation Wednesday afternoon at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa. It was presented by Ed Mitzen, co-founder of the New York-based nonprofit Business for Good.

Fletcher was 7 years old when White mobs attacked the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, a thriving business district known as “Black Wall Street.” The massacre killed as many as 300 and displaced more than 10,000 Black people. In the days after the massacre ended on June 1, 1921, hundreds of massacre survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and marched to “internment camps,” according to survivors’ testimony. No White person was ever arrested or charged.

The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre

In May 2021, Fletcher, the oldest known massacre survivor, testified before Congress and demanded justice for survivors and their descendants. “I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,” Fletcher 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.”

Van Ellis, Fletcher’s younger brother, told the congressional committee, “We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice.”

None of the massacre survivors or their descendants was ever compensated by city or state officials for their loss. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case that sought reparations for victims of the massacre. The case had been appealed to the Supreme Court after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the statute of limitations had passed for survivors and descendants to file a lawsuit against the state.

Judge allows lawsuit by Tulsa Race Massacre survivors to proceed

In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which was tasked by the state of Oklahoma with investigating the massacre, recommended that officials conduct excavations to search for mass graves of massacre victims. The commission also recommended that the state make “direct payments to riot survivors and descendants.” But no state or city reparations have been paid to survivors or descendants.

In 2020, massacre survivors and descendants, with Fletcher, Randle and Ellis as lead plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma officials, seeking punitive damages. Two weeks ago, on May 3, a judge in Tulsa allowed the case to move forward.

Mitzen said that he and his wife, Lisa, who founded the nonprofit with him, were inspired to make the donation after reading stories in The Washington Post about the lawsuit’s case for reparations.

“I remember thinking it should not be this hard,” Ed Mitzen told The Post. “In some ways, it felt like certain people were trying to run the clock out. We felt like it shouldn’t be this hard to get some sense of relief for what they went through.”

Mitzen is a health care marketing entrepreneur who owned three businesses with a combined revenue of more than $500 million. When he sold part of one of his businesses, he said, “Lisa and I got more money than we could dream of.”

Mitzen said the donation should not be considered “reparations.”

She survived the Tulsa Race Massacre. Now, at 107, she’s become a queen mother.

“We are just trying to help some people,” said Mitzen, whose nonprofit works mostly in the Albany region of New York. “We are not trying to be White saviors or political grandstanders. We just want to help.”

Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin (D), who represents Greenwood, called the donation “humanity at its best.” On Wednesday, Goodwin accompanied Mitzen on a tour of Greenwood. Mitzen met with the survivors privately before gathering in the Greenwood Cultural Center for the presentation of the check.

When the massacre survivors first received news of the donation last week, they were elated, Fletcher’s grandson Ike Howard told the crowd gathered in the center. The gift will be shared among the three survivors.

Howard recalled that his grandmother said, “This is wonderful. It’s the largest donation I’ve ever received in my life. It’s wonderful news.”