The solemnity that naturally accompanies such an occasion as the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre will be tinged with special poignancy in this case: Among those observing the centennial will be three people who lived through the violence. Viola Fletcher, who is 107 years old; Lessie Bennington Randle, who is 106; and Hugh Van Ellis, who is 100. The fact that there are living survivors adds a new layer of meaning to this anniversary. It is crucial that we use the occasion to center their voices, their experiences and their calls for justice.
If the 100th anniversary commemoration is to be meaningful, we must pay tribute to those who died, in memory of their sacrifice, and honor those who survived, for their resilience in response to what they had to endure. At minimum, honoring their sacrifice must include identifying and reinterring any victims who now lie in unmarked graves, along with providing restitution and support for the remaining survivors.
In 1921, the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma failed to deliver justice to the victims and survivors of America’s worst race massacre. This occasion offers another opportunity to restore what the remaining survivors and the members of the Greenwood community deserve: justice.
I am not an Oklahoma native. I moved here five years ago to teach Black Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Like so many others, I have struggled to comprehend how an area the size of Greenwood, with its deep community roots, could be destroyed so quickly and so thoroughly. I looked at the numerous photos that White participants and spectators took as Greenwood burned, and while they helped me as a historian to understand the scope and scale of the chaos, death, and destruction, I could not fully grasp such an inconceivable assault on a civilian community. It took guidance from the Greenwood community — the stories of survivors and descendants, the elders who have made it a point to actively remember this history that Tulsa wanted them to forget, and the current residents who care deeply that the victims and survivors are honored — to move me toward the understanding that I now have of the massacre.
Before it happened, over 11,000 Black residents called Greenwood home, and nearly 200 Black-owned businesses in the district were proof that even at the height of the Jim Crow era, Black entrepreneurs could not only survive but thrive. The value of Greenwood residents’ landholdings circa 1921 has been estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars today. Black leaders across the United States, including Booker T. Washington, pointed to Greenwood’s “Black Wall Street” as an example of how Black community commitment could foster a thriving Black urban economy.
In my recently published book, “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History,” I grapple with the photographic legacy of this tragic history. The book was born out of the recognition that for decades following the massacre photos of what occurred were either hidden from public view or destroyed. The photos leave no doubt that what occurred on May 31 and June 1, 1921 was indeed a massacre, as those who lived through it insisted from the outset. With only three of those people still alive, it is more important than ever to center the survivor experience in the telling of what occurred.
Although the events in Greenwood as described by the Black survivors clearly met the definition of a massacre, Tulsa-area newspapers and city leaders were quick to reframe the violence as having been initiated by Blacks in rebellion against White Tulsans. For decades that perspective prevailed in the White media and in history books, if they mentioned the violence in Greenwood at all. By perpetuating the “negro uprising” narrative, the city and local insurance companies were able to avoid making payments to deserving Black homeowners and Black business owners who had lost everything. Fixing blame on the Black community, not the White perpetrators, benefited White power.
Although Black Tulsans rebuilt homes and businesses, Greenwood has never fully recovered from the devastation of those two days in 1921. This is surely what the White mob hoped would happen as they murdered and burned their way through so many blocks of successful businesses, vibrant churches and beautiful family homes.
There has always been a racial wealth gap in the city, but it currently seems to be widening. There are now, in fact, “two Tulsas.” In North Tulsa, which is largely Black, 35% of residents live below the federal poverty line. The area is a food desert, and its schools are failing. Young Black entrepreneurs are hampered by racial inequality and a lack of opportunities.