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Why it happened and why it’s still relevant today


Fletcher’s brother Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and a World War II veteran, said his childhood was hard as his family recovered from the massacre.

“We didn’t have much. What little we had would be stolen from us,” Ellis told the committee. “When something is stolen from you, you go to the courts to be made whole. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The devil courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice and that we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully American.”

Fletcher served white families for most of her life as a domestic worker. “I never made much money,” she said. “To this day, I can barely afford my everyday needs.”

The siblings, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, and some of the experts who testified called on Congress to provide reparations to the survivors and descendants of the massacre.

Hughes Van Ellis, left, a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and Viola Fletcher, second right, oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testify before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on “Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre” on Capitol Hill on May 19, 2021.Jim Watson / AFP – Getty Images

“We are not asking for a handout,” Ellis said through tears. “All we are asking for is for the chance to be treated like a first-class citizen, that this is the land where there is liberty and justice for all. We are asking for justice for a lifetime of ongoing harm.”

That harm includes the city of Tulsa faulting Greenwood residents for the damage. “Let the blame for this negro uprising lie right where it belongs — on those armed negros and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it and any persons who seek to put half the blame on the white people are wrong,” the Tulsa City Commission wrote in a report issued two weeks after the massacre.

Shortly after the massacre, a grand jury was empaneled to prosecute the rioting, weapons and looting and arson charges. The all-white jury indicted more than 85 people, who were mostly Black. Those indictments were largely dismissed or not pursued, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

The final grand jury report agreed with the Tulsa City Commission that Black people were the main culprits. “There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of the armed Negros, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair,” the grand jury wrote.

The case against Rowland was dismissed.

Black Wall Street did, eventually, rise from the ashes and Greenwood enjoyed another heyday in the 1940s, but integration and urban renewal in the 1960s and the 1970s led to new declines the neighborhood was unable to fully overcome, Johnson said. The setback has only compounded since then as Tulsa remains largely segregated and riddled with racial disparities.

Greenwood is just outside of North Tulsa, which is mostly Black, while South Tulsa is a mostly white area. These days, more than 30 percent of North Tulsans live in poverty compared to 13 percent of South Tulsans, the report said. On average, North Tulsans live 14 years less than South Tulsans. Black Tulsans are three times more likely to face police brutality in comparison to their white counterparts. Statewide, 43 percent of Black people own their homes compared to 72 percent of white people.

Vernon AME Church with a plaque commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in Tulsa, Okla., on May 21st, 2021.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

Johnson said there are two main casualties of the massacre that contribute to these discrepancies and affect everyday life — a breach in trust between Black and white communities and the inability to transfer accumulated wealth.

“Many people in the white mob that destroyed the Greenwood community back in 1921 were deputized by local law enforcement. You have an incident like that, then the breach in trust is huge. The other thing that happened post-massacre — there are a lot of promises made by local leaders, these are white men, about rebuilding the Greenwood community, and they didn’t really materialize. So, promises broken. So trust is a real lingering issue,” he said.

The other lingering issue is how Black wealth is generally one-tenth of white wealth. Johnson said the inability of Black people to accumulate wealth and transfer it intergenerationally is the root cause.

“Slavery was obviously a huge example of an inability to accumulate wealth — uncompensated labor,” he said. “But the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is an example of the inability to transfer wealth intergenerationally because of disruptors — some of these wealthy Black men, their wealth was lost in the massacre, and it was not restored.”

That’s why, Randle said, it is important for the survivors and descendants of the massacre to recoup some restitution.

“Justice in America,” Randle said, “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.”

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