Centenarians who survived the destruction of a thriving Black district in Tulsa, Oklahoma
, in 1921 told members of Congress
on Wednesday that they are still waiting for justice.
“By the grace of God, I am still here. I have survived. I have survived to tell this story,” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, said in front of the House
Judiciary’s Civil Rights
and Civil Liberties Subcommittee.
The hearing was scheduled to coincide with the centennial of the Tulsa race massacre
, in which a white mob leveled a Black community called Greenwood in May 1921, razing businesses, killing an estimated 300 Black people
, and displacing another 10,000 people.
Randle was one of three survivors to speak out about the atrocities, and she is part of a reparations lawsuit
filed last year against the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the state of Oklahoma, and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce for the two-day attack
“They murdered people. We were told they just dumped the dead bodies into the river. I remember running outside our house and passing dead bodies. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I still see it in my mind 100 years later,” Randle said.
Viola Fletcher, 107, testified that she and her family were forced to flee their home when a racist
mob descended on them in the middle of the night when she was 7 years old. Her brother Hughes Van Ellis, a 100-year-old World War II
veteran who served in an all-Black unit, also testified.
“We had great neighbors and I had friends
to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future ahead of me,” Fletcher said.
“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. 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 planes flying
overhead. I still hear the screams,” she said.
The events changed Fletcher's life forever; she was never able to finish her education
and became a domestic worker in white households, and she still struggles to afford basic everyday needs, she said.
Van Ellis enlisted in the military and went on to serve his country in the years following the murders and theft of land and businesses by fellow Americans. When he returned from fighting in World War II, he claimed he was not eligible for GI Bill benefits due to the color of his skin.
“I returned home to segregation
and a separate and unequal America, but I still believed in America,” he said, wearing a veteran’s cap.
“You may have been taught that if something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts... to get justice. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma refused to hear us. The federal courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice, that we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully Americans,” he said.
Randle, Fletcher, and Van Ellis all expressed frustration with the lack of justice in the aftermath of what is widely regarded as one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history
“It appears that justice in America is all really slow or not possible for Black people, and we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right,” Randle said. “There are always so many excuses for why justice is so slow or never happens at all. I am here today, 106 years old, looking at you all in the eye. We have waited 100 years... I am tired. We are tired.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation in the House that would create a commission
to “examine slavery
and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies,” including possible reparations.
The Greenwood survivors, their families, and local organizations filed a lawsuit accusing local officials of allowing, encouraging, and participating in the attack, as well as preventing the community's recovery.
The suit also accuses officials of “enriching themselves” from the tragedy in recent years by promoting the site as a kind of tourist attraction. Funds raised through this endeavor, the suit claims, have not gone to the Greenwood neighborhood or those directly impacted by the massacre, but are funding the creation of a history center in which the suit’s defendants will have a vested interest.