Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre described on Wednesday how the violence tore their lives and community apart 100 years ago, and they urged a U.S. House subcommittee to help secure justice and financial compensation.
“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house,” Viola Fletcher, a 107-year-old survivor of the 1921 massacre, testified.
“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.”
Fletcher said the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties had “the power to lead us down a better path.”
“Open the courtroom doors to us,” she said.
Fletcher was one of three survivors who testified before the subcommittee, which held its second hearing on the massacre and potential legal paths for compensating survivors and descendants of victims.
It's estimated that the attack led to hundreds being killed and thousands left homeless in Tulsa's Greenwood district in 1921.
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Previous committee hearing on massacre was 14 years ago
A hearing by the subcommittee in 2007 accompanied legislation that would have allowed victims to pursue legal claims in federal court despite court rulings that claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
That legislation was never approved. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Calif., a member of the subcommittee, said Wednesday that he would introduce similar legislation this week creating a path to seek damages for the death and destruction that occurred on May 31 and June 1 of 1921.
“You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole – you can go to the courts for justice,” massacre survivor Hughes Van Ellis told the subcommittee on Wednesday.
“This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice.”
A lawsuit was filed in Oklahoma last year under the state’s public nuisance law, claiming that the “public nuisance of racial disparities, economic inequalities, insecurity, and trauma” caused by the city of Tulsa and other defendants in 1921 continues today. The suit is ongoing.
'...Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma and the Tulsa Chamber are responsible for making it right'
Lessie Benningfield Randle, who recalled for the subcommittee running past dead bodies during the massacre when she was 6 years old, said, “We know most of the people who committed these acts are dead now.
“The three of us here today are the only ones left that we know of. But just because these men are probably dead, the city and county of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma and the Tulsa Chamber are still responsible for making it right.”
Randle, as other witnesses on Wednesday did, accused the city and chamber of benefiting from the massacre and the upcoming observance of the 100-year anniversary.
“They have raised more than $30 million and refused to share any with me or the other two survivors,” Randle said. “They have used my name to further their fundraising goals without my permission … and misrepresented my support of their upcoming centennial.”
Eric Miller, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, in California, told the subcommittee, “The same city and chamber of commerce that silenced the survivors and their descendants for 70 years now wants to tell their history without paying them a penny.
“The city and chamber of commerce that monetized and marketed the massacre in 1921 is doing it again, creating a tourist attraction claiming to tell the stories of the victims and designed to attract Black people to Tulsa, all without input from the survivors and their descendants."
The allegations are part of the lawsuit filed last year. A spokesperson for the Tulsa Regional Chamber said Wednesday that the chamber does not comment on litigation.
A spokesperson for the city noted that the Greenwood Rising History Center was initiated by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. Black Tulsans are leading the project, and the city of Tulsa does not benefit financially from its construction, the spokesperson said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said, “I am very grateful for the philanthropic donors who have funded its construction, and the scholars whose work make it possible. Generations grew up in Tulsa without public dialogue regarding the Race Massacre. Greenwood Rising will ensure that never happens again.”
Former House speaker T.W. Shannon criticizes House resolution
Also at the hearing on Wednesday, former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon spoke against a resolution adopted by the U.S. House this week recognizing the massacre centennial.
Shannon, who is of African American and Chickasaw Nation descent, said the somber occasion of the centennial was being diluted “by those who seek to further inflame racial divisions and foment animosity toward law enforcement.”
Shannon, a Republican, said Americans should know of the brutality and atrocity of the massacre but that “history should be taught without political bias and without the intent to make any one group, gender or ethnicity feel responsible for the sins of their ancestors.”
The House resolution condemns “past and present efforts to cover up the truth and shield the White community, and especially State and local officials, from accountability for the Tulsa Race Massacre.”
The resolution also condemns “the continued legacy of racism, including systemic racism, and White supremacy against Black people in the United States, particularly in the form of police brutality.”
The resolution was authored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and has 99 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Tulsa Race Massacre survivors describe horrors, ask lawmakers for help