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.
Adding a personal touch to a House Judiciary subcommittee considering reparations for survivors and descendants of the massacre, the three centenarians recalled how the violence, among the worst attacks of racial violence in U.S. history, changed the trajectory of their lives. They described feeling safe, even prosperous, before the attack, surrounded by friends and family in a neighborhood of mostly Black-owned businesses.
Then, 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.
“I have lived through the massacre every day,” she said. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”
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.”
“We aren’t just black-and-white pictures on a screen,” he said. “We are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I’m still here.”
All of the committee members — Democrats and Republicans — rose for standing ovations after the survivors spoke.
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.
For the better part of a century, Tulsa did little to remember the victims of the massacre. There was no memorial, no yearly commemoration, and even many Tulsa residents knew little about it. Residents began marking the day with modest ceremonies in 1996.
In recent years, awareness of the massacre has been growing. In 2019, a fictionalized depiction of the attacks was used as a key plot point in HBO’s “Watchmen,” introducing a new generation to the massacre if they hadn’t heard about it in history classes.
But the survivors are seeking more than awareness. They have accused the city of turning what remains of Greenwood, now just half a block, into a tourist destination, and using their stories to enrich others but not the victims themselves.
In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by massacre survivors. They appealed the decision to two federal court judges, who said they had waited too long to file the lawsuit.
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. Now her name is being used to fund-raise for others, and she waited too long for justice, she said.
“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait,” she said. “Others have told us it’s too late. It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people. And we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”